Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Virginia's Road Rage

Virginians keep getting more and more upset with the state's new "abusive driver fees," first reported by the Washington Post back in June. Under the new system, drivers convicted of certain traffic offenses will get hit up with an extra "fee" on top of the ordinary fine they're assessed by the judge. And the fees are hefty: if you drive more than 20 miles an hour over the speed limit, you'll pay the ordinary $200 fine and then get assessed a "fee" of $1,050 by the state. Quite an unhappy surprise.

And, oh, by the way, the fees apply only to Virginians -- out-of-state bad drivers don't have to pay them.

Since the fees were first reported by the Post they've led to a long series of articles about how upset Virginians are: first there was a report of a "growing backlash," then an "outcry" and a claim that some of the fees were "mistakes," then a petition for repeal that got over 100,000 signatures. The latest word is a report on the unintended consequences of similar fees in other states that have adopted them, such as an increase in unlicensed drivers (people who've had their licenses suspended because they can't afford to pay the fees), and a suggestion that the fees haven't done much to improve safety in those states.

The fundamental problem, I would say, is that once fees become detached from their original purpose, it's impossible to deal with them properly. The purpose of fines for speeding and other driving offenses should be to punish and deter bad driving. The fees should be set at a level sufficient to make people think twice about speeding or doing something else that's hazardous. The goal should be to improve safety on the roads.

It's clear, however, that the purpose of the new Virginia fees is to raise revenue. The fees originated as a substitute for a statewide tax increase. Once that becomes the goal, there's no stopping point. Why not charge speeders $5,000? And $10,000 for drivers running a red light?

Once fees become primarily about revenue, their ability to serve their original function can be greatly reduced. The best example, I think, is the rush-hour times on Washington's subway, the Metro. When I arrived in town, evening rush hour was defined as ending at 7 pm. In 1995, it was extended to 8 pm.

Now, that was ridiculous. The purpose of rush hour (during which the fares are higher) is to spread out passenger traffic by giving people an incentive to leave work later. Rush hour ending at 7 pm can do that with some success. But if rush hour goes until 8, the number of people willing to wait is going to decrease pretty sharply.

The obvious problem was that Metro's board had detached rush hour from its purpose. They didn't extend it until 8 because that made sense in terms of spreading out passenger traffic; they just needed more money, and so they decided to hit up more riders -- basically, almost all the commuters -- for the rush hour fares. But once they did that, rush hour couldn't serve its function of spreading out passengers, because people wouldn't want to wait until 8. I presume the trains got a lot more crowded from 5:30 - 6:30, as the people who used to wait until 7 just went home when they really wanted to. Today, the rush hour fare (officially known as the "regular fare," isn't that nice) has returned to its more sensible 7 pm ending time.

Virginia will, doubtless, experience a similar fate if it keeps its "abusive driver" fees. They may sound like a safety measure, but so long as they are really a revenue measure, I doubt they will be set at a level that will best serve the safety function. They'll be too high, they will have unintended consequences, and you'll see a lot of unsmiling Virginians on the roads.

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