Virginia Lawmakers Drop 'Bad Driver' Fees

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A recent effort by several states to slap stiff fines on reckless drivers has run into a rebellion in Virginia. State lawmakers have voted to throw the law out and give some of the money back after complaints about how fines were assessed.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

Alas, the economy is not booming back here in the east. Virginia, like most states, needs money to build new roads and bridges and fix old ones. Raising taxes and hiking gas prices were not appealing options for state legislators, but another option seemed like a no-brainer.

Pass a law to levy fines on bad drivers and make them foot the bill. However, it sparked opposition. In fact, a rebellion. Virginia's legislators have just voted to throw out the law, and even give the money back.

NPR's Kathleen Schalch has our story.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: It seemed like a really good idea at the time, especially to the bill's sponsor, Dave Albo. Albo represents Virginia suburbs south of Washington, D.C., where gridlock has made commuting a nightmare.

Mr. DAVE ALBO (Virginia State Representative): It takes people an hour and a half to drive 13 miles from my district to work.

SCHALCH: But fixing that problem would take money.

Mr. ALBO: I was trying to dig change from under seat cushions to build roads.

SCHALCH: Albo says Virginia faces another common affliction: reckless driving. Albo sees it when he drives to the state capital.

Mr. ALBO: I get passed by people doing 90, 95 miles an hour, whipping in and out of traffic, not using their turn signals. And so that's what was so magical about this bill. It was going to raise a lot

Albo sees it when he drives to the state capital.

Mr. ALBO: I get passed by people doing 90, 95 miles an hour, whipping in and out of traffic, not using their turn signals. And so that's what was so magical about this bill. It was going to raise a lot of money to improve the roads, and by increasing punishments it was going to reduce criminal driving behavior.

But the magic died. There were news stories about people slapped with fines in excess of $1,000. An elderly lady on a fixed income with an otherwise spotless record, a pregnant woman who was speeding to the hospital, even a man cited for reckless bike riding.

Bryan Ault of northern Virginia never ran afoul of the law himself, but he and many other citizens just didn't think it was fair.

Mr. BRYAN AULT (Northern Virginia Resident): Well, I simply saw the legislature as mixing safety legislation with revenue generation with assigning punishments that don't fit the crime with punishing their own constituents, the people of Virginia more strictly than they were punishing out-of-state residents because the new fees only apply to Virginia residents.

SCHALCH: Ault started an online petition.

Mr. AULT: And it got an incredible response and really showed to the people in the general assembly how the citizens of Virginia felt about this law.

SCHALCH: How many signatories?

Mr. AULT: A hundred and seventy-seven thousand last time I checked.

Governor TIM KAINE (Democrat, Virginia): Virginia citizens in huge numbers have told us that the fee should be repealed, and we should listen to them.

SCHALCH: Recently even Governor Tim Kaine, an early backer of the law, conceded it was all but over. He said it wasn't clear the law was working anyway. State officials had hoped it would generate $65 million per year, but Kaine says fees collected in the first six months fell far short of that.

Gov. KAINE: And neither of the number of traffic tickets issued nor the tragic number of deaths on Virginia's roads in 2007 indicate that the fees have improved highway safety.

SCHALCH: Virginia auditors looked at other states that had imposed the so-called abusive driver fees, including Texas, Michigan and New Jersey, and they found no clear evidence that they reduced highway deaths. Lead state auditor Hal Greer says in Virginia the fees did have an affect on arrests for reckless driving.

Mr. HAL GREER (Lead State Auditor, Virginia): Arrests for reckless driving by the state police have declined by 14 percent.

SCHALCH: But no one knows why. Are people being more careful or are police reluctant to impose huge fines? Now, perhaps we'll never know. Governor Kaine says he'll sign the legislation and throw out the bad driver fees.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Up next on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, building roads in Afghanistan.

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