Bad drivers could face state fines
O'Malley includes fees in fiscal 2012 budget
Some Montgomery County drivers informally interviewed Tuesday say Gov. Martin O'Malley is on the right road when it comes to penalizing bad drivers.
O'Malley's (D) proposed budget for fiscal 2012, released Jan. 21, calls for about $5 million in revenue as a result of fines of $100 for each point over five points that drivers incur on their licenses within five years. A $500 fine would be assessed for each alcohol- or drug-related driving offense even those committed out of state. Drivers would pay the fees annually for three years.
"I think it's a good idea since I have a clean license and don't drink and drive," said Arlene Robinson, 57, of Rockville.
Kevin Prather, 23, of Montgomery Village, says he also has a clean driving record, but thinks the fines on speeding might go too far. He agrees that a $500 fine might deter some from driving drunk.
However, Chelsea Cockerill, 20, of Montgomery Village, said Tuesday that five points is too low of a threshold to begin fining drivers because the points quickly could add up if a driver is stopped just a few times.
Cockerill said her license has at least two points on it after she was ticketed for speeding, running a stop sign and another violation all in the same incident.
"But I was just going 8 over" the speed limit, she said. "So, it doesn't really count."
While the governor's office says the fees may help avert budget cuts and promote public safety, Republican lawmakers say they are just another way to tax Maryland residents.
"When we start taxing the criminals, we've really stretched out there really far," said House Minority Leader Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby.
The so-called bad driver fees are expected to bring in $9 million in fiscal 2013 and $11 million for every year after that.
About 5,500 drivers each year are convicted of alcohol- or drug-related driving offenses. About 14,000 drivers a year accumulate more than five points on their licenses for a total of about 20,000 points.
The revenue would go to the state's general fund for now, but beginning in fiscal 2014 would be directed to the Maryland Emergency Medical Systems Operating Fund, which finances state helicopters, grants to fire and rescue departments and other public safety needs.
Maryland is not the only state to have mulled a fee on dangerous driving. Michigan, New Jersey and Virginia already have such fees in place, and officials there say they were introduced because of significant problems balancing the states' budgets.
O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said this is the first time the governor has proposed such a fee.
"What we did in the budget process is look at the population this would impact and weigh the pros and cons," he said. "This will offset some painful cuts we could have had to take. And if it has an impact on public safety, that's a gain."
Adamec said the fees could serve as a deterrent for speeding and driving drunk.
The state's Motor Vehicle Administration will oversee the program if it is approved by the General Assembly, MVA spokesman Buel Young said. But much of how the program would operate is undetermined.
The MVA is checking with states that have similar programs on how they assess fines and what they do if drivers do not pay the fees, Young said. He said it was unknown whether driver's licenses would be suspended or if their wages could be garnisheed, as they are in other states.
"I'd be inclined to support something like this," said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-Dist. 29B) of California. "These are pretty serious violations of the law, and there is a direct nexus between what it will ultimately fund, which is the MEMSOF program."
Bohanan serves on the House Appropriations Committee, which will take up the budget. He said he would have had to pay such fees many years ago, when he was forced to take remedial driving classes because of excessive moving violations. The violations were not related to drugs or alcohol.
Some question whether such fees are a reliable source of revenue.
"I think it's a bad way to balance the budget," said Mary Forsberg, research director at the New Jersey Policy Perspective, a nonprofit organization.
"What's happened in New Jersey," which assesses a bad driver fee, "is that rather than raising taxes, we've basically filed fees onto people," she said.
Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Dist. 34) of Abingdon said O'Malley's proposed bad driver fee reminds her of the cigarette tax. Such vice taxes are intended to curb bad behavior, but at the same time, the state also depends on the revenue generated.
"This is very creative, what they are doing," said Jacobs, the new Senate minority leader, referring to the O'Malley administration. "They are nickel-and-diming the citizens to death."
Neil Bergsman, director of the nonprofit Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, said that while he worked in the state's budget office, consulting firms tried to convince former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to assess similar fines for bad driving. Ehrlich was not interested, Bergsman said.
For some, the issue is not the penalty itself but whether it goes far enough to protect Maryland drivers.
Caroline Cash, executive director of the Maryland chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, says a better alternative would be to require those convicted of drunken driving to have an ignition interlock system installed in their cars.
Current law allows the MVA to install the devices in cars of convicted drunken drivers, but does not require it.
Ignition interlocks are in-car devices that prevent the vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking alcohol.
"If you're going to charge them $500, that's about the cost of the ignition interlock for six months," Cash said. "People can pay fees, but that doesn't necessitate that they will change their behavior."
Cash said the ignition interlock system, which has been proposed in the Maryland General Assembly for years, has proved to reduce drunken-driving-related deaths in other states, such as New Mexico.
"Fees have done nothing to save lives," she said.
Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park introduced ignition interlock legislation last year, and he said he plans to re-introduce the bill this legislative session. The bill would make the interlock system mandatory for a first drunken-driving offense.
An identical bill will be introduced in the House by Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Dist. 19) of Derwood, Raskin said.
"It's fine to impose a fine on people for drunk driving, but the real thing is to prevent them from drunk driving in the future," Raskin said. "I don't want fees to just be the cost of business for the most dangerous drivers on the road."
Staff Writer Alan Brody contributed to this report.