The Abuser Fee Debate: When All Else Fails, Look at the Facts

“Being for driver safety is a good thing. We need to study it in a deliberate way before we rush into it.”

So said Gov. Timothy M. Kaine during a press conference he held with senior members of the General Assembly yesterday in defense of abusive-driving fees enacted into law this year. (Read Jeff Schapiro’s account of the press conference in the Times-Dispatch.)

Yes, we can all agree that driver safety is a good thing. But where, pray tell, was the “deliberate” study? What empirical basis does Virginia’s political leadership have for stating that highly punitive fines will lead to safer roads?

It just so happens that the Virginia Crime Commission published a study earlier this year, “Effectiveness of Existing Punishments and Recommendations for Additional Remedies for Driving While Intoxicated,” that examined the effectiveness of increased punishments for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Del. David B. Albo, R-Fairfax, the leading advocate of the now-infamous Abuser Fees, introduced legislation in the 2004 session that increased penalties for DUI. Measures included (1) increased minimum sentences for second and third convictions, (2) lower blood alcohol levels to trigger mandatory minimum sentences, and (3) other penalties such as suspension of driver’s licenses, confiscation of cars and a presumption against bail under certain circumstances.

The law went into effect July 1, 2004. The study’s conclusions (my italics):

The data does show that there were fewer convictions for second and third offense drunk driving charges in 2005, as compared to 2004. Because this data reveals recidivism rates for only a one year period, it is possible that other factors are responsible for the lower numbers. Staff has concluded that it is not possible to definitively state, with methodological rigor, that the more severe punishments are causing recidivism for drunk driving to decline. Whether the lower numbers for DUI convictions will continue, or whether 2004 will come to be seen as an unusual year in which the number of DUI incidents was lower than normal, remains to be determined.

Additionally, there are many factors that contribute to the total number of DUI incidents occurring during a given year. The number of law enforcement officers assigned to patrol for drunk drivers, the number of DUI checkpoints established throughout the state, and the number of public service announcements on radio and television cautioning people to avoid drunk driving, all may impact DUI rates. The types of counseling and treatment given to people convicted of a first DUI may have even more of an impact on their future behavior than the amount of punishment they receive. Attempting to objectively discern what precise variables are having the most measurable effects on lowering DUI rates is extremely difficult.

While the initial data for the past year, with the lower DUI figures, is encouraging, it is too soon to draw any firm conclusions as to whether this is due to the changes made to the DUI statutes in 2004. Until data is available for at least four to six years, it is not possible to assess whether those changes are responsible for lowering recidivism rates. Nevertheless, the initial data is promising, and the Crime Commission intends to continue monitoring DUI rates on an annual basis to see if the downward trend continues.

That’s the only relevant report to the General Assembly that I could find in 2007 or 2006. (Someone might want to go behind me and make sure I didn’t miss something.) Fact: No one studied anything related to Abuser Fees “in a deliberate way” before passing the law. Fact: There is no empirical basis for claiming that the higher fees for traffic offenses will translate into safer roads. There are only hints, based on one year’s of data, that increased penalties might reduce recidivism for DUI, but the study insisted that the data were inconclusive and pointed to other possible causes.

If Gov. Kaine, House Speaker William J. Howell and other General Assembly leaders insist upon keeping the the fines, they should, at a minimum, do this: Fund mechanisms to measure and analyze the impact of Abuser Fees on drivers’ behavior. Let us not re-open the debate three or four years from now as ignorant of the facts as we are today!

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


8 responses to “The Abuser Fee Debate: When All Else Fails, Look at the Facts”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I’m reminded of the joke where a brand new consignee to Hell is discussing his “options” with the Devil who shows him 2 doors.

    Behind the first door, people are having their backsides blowtorched.

    Behind the second door, people are sitting in human crap up to their necks and drinking coffee.

    The guy immediately sized up the situation as a final test of a person’s intelllecutal worth – a reward evil for the evil – and choose the tea drinking side and no sooner had he spoken than an authoritative voice boomed – “coffee break” is over – back on your heads..

    So.. I was thinking what if the Gov comes back at some point and says .. “woe is us.. we’d like to get rid of these laws but we need the money”

    and then he asks… “would ya’ll rather have an indexed gas tax instead?”

    big GRIN…

  2. rodger provo Avatar
    rodger provo

    To All-

    The problem with the 2007 so called
    compromise package approved by the
    state to meet our transportation
    needs is it is a bad deal for those
    of us who live in Virginia, but a
    good deal for out of state travlers
    using our roads.

    Think about these facts:

    1. the higher driver abuse fees are
    levied against Virginians, but
    not truckers from New Jersey or
    motorists from New York

    2. the two regional authorities
    included in this package provides
    7 new fines and taxes, most will
    hit Virginians, while a couple
    of them we will generate income
    from out of state travelers and
    visitors to our state

    3. and we continue to maintain one
    of the lowest fuel tax levies on
    the East Coast that benefits those
    using our roads from other places.

    Go figure. Only a bunch of anti-
    tax, anti-government conservatives
    could find reason in this logic
    relative to looking after their
    residents. It is not fair!!!!!

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    The most interesting story today about the fees is this one from Front Royal where it appears they’re considering an ordinance to not collect the fees.

    Becky Dale

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Uh, if memory serves, Mr. Bacon, you were all for these fines when the concept of collecting highway funding this way was introduced a year or two ago.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Anonymous 7:41, You’re right, I did support the idea a year ago. But only a fool or a rigid ideologue fails to re-examine his views after new arguments and evidence is presented.

    Even now, I’m open to the idea of increasing penalties on abusive drivers. If it can be shown that increasing penalties leads to a reduction in reckless driving, which leads to a reduction in the number of traffic acccidents, which leads to a reduction in congestion, then the idea is worthy of closer examination. We should survey the empirical data, and we should solicit input from the people in the front lines of the traffic courts, the judges, and we should devise the optimimum mix of penalties and fines.

    But the Gov. Kaine/the General Assembly did not do that. Their priority was raising revenue. There is no evidence that they studied anything very closely. And they have set up no mechanisms for tracking and measuring the effectiveness of the fees in actually changing the behavior of bad drivers so the mix of penalties can be fine-tuned in the future.

  6. Groveton Avatar

    Very interesting story from Front Royal.

    Let’s start with the truth – these abuser fees are taxes.

    Now let’s ask whether these taxes are fair.

    Many on this blog adhere to the belief that people should pay for their own location based costs. And living in the suburbs is a behavior that (supposedly) raises location based costs – at least in traditional suburban settlement patterns. Therefore, the suburbanites should pay for the road construction because it is a cost reflective of their location based behavior and rightly assignable to them. The bloggers who adhere to this philosophy believe it to be true even when it can clearly be demonstrated that those same suburbanites are paying taxes well in exess of what they receive from the state – the surplus going to municipalities which operate in a permanent deficit. This is fair, say the bloggers, because the transfer payment is not used by the receiving municipality for location based costs. In oether words, soaking the suburbs for rural costs is OK because the people in the suburbs behave so poorly with their lifestyle decisions.

    Now comes the abuser fees. Who are they soaking? Bad drivers. Don’t bad drivers cost us all more? They cause more crashes. They drive up health care costs. They require more police on the roads. They exhibit behaviors that put people in serious jeopardy of injury and death. They should pay for their behavior specific costs.

    Anybody who wants to obey the traffic laws can obey the traffic laws. You have a choice. Just like the people in the suburbs have a choice of living in a condo vs a single family home.

    Mr. Bacon wants people who choose to live in single family homes to pay tolls to use their roads. He says their behavior has led to location costs.

    The governor wants people who choose to break traffic laws to pay an extra tax.

    What’s the difference?

    Is it the fact that the abuser fees will be directed to transportation instead of law enforcement?

    Is it the belief that the abuser fees are more than the actual cost of bad driving? If so, I’d like to see some facts and figures on that one. What’s the cost of someone crippled by an idiot driving dangerously down I-95?

    In addition, none of the “location specific cost” adherents have any measurable idea of what the suburbs cost vs. what the pay in taxes. No idea whatsoever. However, that doesn’t stop them for demanding location specific tolls.

    The simple fact is that these abuser fees represent a tax on all Virginians to help pay for Virginia’s transportation problems. And anything that reduces the subsidy going from Northern Virginia to elsewhere in the state is abhorrent to those receiving the benefit of that subsidy.

    The good news here?

    You can elect not to pay the tax.

    Just obey the law.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    **Good News For All Virginians…Hopefully, the following will be a trend throughout VA since the Governor does not care**

    Front Royal May Reject Va. Fees for ‘Abusive Drivers’

    The small town of Front Royal, in the foothills of the Shenandoahs, is taking on what town leaders and many others consider to be the scourge of Virginia.

    The council is scheduled to vote Monday on a resolution that would prevent its police officers from enforcing Virginia’s “abusive driving” fees.

  8. Groveton Avatar

    Front Royal statistics (from wikipedia):

    The median income for a household in the town was $34,786, and the median income for a family was $42,675. Males had a median income of $32,373 versus $24,182 for females. The per capita income for the town was $17,901. About 9.1% of families and 14.8% of the population were below the poverty line, including 15.2% of those under age 18 and 13.2% of those age 65 or over.

    Statistics from Warren County (from Wikipedia):

    The median income for a household in the county was $42,422, and the median income for a family was $50,487. Males had a median income of $37,182 versus $25,506 for females. The per capita income for the county was $19,841. About 6.00% of families and 8.50% of the population were below the poverty line, including 8.70% of those under age 18 and 10.40% of those age 65 or over.

    As a refrerence point, statistics from Spotsylvainia County (from Wikipedia):

    The median income for a household in the county was $57,525, and the median income for a family was $62,422. Males had a median income of $40,909 versus $27,910 for females. The per capita income for the county was $22,536. About 3.40% of families and 4.70% of the population were below the poverty line, including 6.20% of those under age 18 and 4.80% of those age 65 or over.

    I guess the politicians from Front Royal are trying the age old trick of carping loudly to deflect attention from their utter, total, complete and abject failures.

Leave a Reply