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Posted on Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 6 a.m.

Michigan lawmakers should repeal unreasonable driver responsibility fees

By Tony Dearing


Photo courtesy of Pittsfield Township, Brian Kabat

There’s bad legislation, there’s particularly bad legislation, and then there’s the Driver Responsibility Act. It’s easily one of the worst laws to come out of Lansing in the last two decades.

State lawmakers passed the Driver Responsibility Act in 2003, ostensibly as a means of improving traffic safety. But in reality, it was nothing more than a money-grab, a way to bolster the state’s coffers by socking motorists with unreasonable and onerous fees for a variety of driving infractions.

Eight years later, there’s no evidence that this punitive legislation has resulted in any reduction in bad driving or traffic accidents. All it’s resulted in is millions of dollars in fines imposed on motorists without regard to basic fairness or their ability to pay. It is time to repeal this law, or at least rescind the recurring fines for all but the most serious motor violations.

Since its inception, the Driver Responsibility Law has been widely renounced, particularly for the element of double-jeopardy it creates, as well as for the disproportionate impact it has on low-income people, who often can’t afford the fines and end up having even heavier fines heaped on them when they don’t pay up.

Under the act, fees of $100 to $1,000 are imposed for violations as minor as failing to surrender a driver’s license from another state to more serious offenses like driving drunk or failing to stop at the scene of an accident. And the fees are recurring, meaning that you have to pay them for two consecutive years for a single offense. If an officer pulls you over and you can’t show proof of insurance, you have to pay a fee of $200, and the following year, you have to pay another $200. That’s simply not fair.

Over time, these fees add up in a way that’s lucrative for the state, but oppressive for motorists. In fiscal 2009-10, the state collected more than $122 million in fees, and most of that money went directly into the state’s general fund, rather than to local police agencies or courts that enforce traffic laws, or to programs that support traffic safety or road maintenance.

In recent years, the state actually has imposes fees of well over $200 million annually, but up to half of those fees go uncollected -- in many cases because lower-income people are hard-pressed to come up with the money. If you are a single mother or a person working a minimum-wage job, a fee of $200 or $500 can be crushing financial blow. That begins a vicious cycle where the failure to pay triggers additional fees, or even the loss of your driver’s license.

Rich Kinsey, a retired Ann Arbor police detective who writes a column for on law enforcement issues, addressed the topic of driver responsibility fees recently, saying they’ve created “new class of criminal’’ as low-income people who lose their license feel they have no choice but drive to and from work in order keep earning money in an attempt to pay their fines. He told the story of one man who failed to pay a traffic ticket and eventually ended up owing $14,000 in fines to the state.

“Most professionals in the criminal justice system think it’s wrong,’’ Kinsey wrote of the law. As a result, he said, many police officers and judges are finding ways to avoid enforcing it.

When the people who are sworn to uphold the law find a piece of legislation so unfair and unreasonable that they refuse to carry it out, that’s a telling indictment. The Driver Responsibility Act is bad law, and it should have been done away with years ago. The state of Virginia passed a similar law in 2007 and repealed it the next year. The state of Texas, which has a program similar to Michigan’s, also is considering repealing it. One lawmaker there said the law has “created more problems than it’s solved.’’

Right now, there is legislation in the House (HB4816) that would outright repeal the fees. This summer, the Senate passed SB166, which rescinds the fees for such offenses as operating without a valid license, failing to show proof of insurance or accumulating more than 7 points on your driver’s license over a two-year period. It leaves in place the fees for more serious offenses involving such things as negligent homicide, reckless driving or drinking and driving.

We understand the desire of government to find new sources of revenue, but it has to be done with a basic sense of fairness toward taxpayers, and the Driver Responsibility Act fails that test. What’s more, a House fiscal analysis of SB166 estimates the loss of revenue to the state would only be about $13 million to $17 million annually, which wouldn’t be big hit to the state budget, but would offer significant relief to motorists who need it most.

While we’d welcome outright repeal, we’re most concerned about seeing the fees removed for less serious violations. If you drink and then get behind the wheel of a car, we have no sympathy for that behavior. But a person struggling to get by in this tough economy doesn’t deserve the modern-day equivalent of debtor’s prison for a minor traffic offense. It’s just plain wrong. Police and judges know that. It’s time for lawmakers to do something about it.

(This editorial was published in today's newspaper and represents the opinion of the Editorial Board at



Tue, Dec 13, 2011 : 9:55 p.m.

Dfossil, It is not about someone whining at all. Most of these drivers has paid their fines for the tickets so to have to pay an extra 200-2000 is tragic. I know someone who received a ticket , and was imposed the DRF. They paid their ticket the next day, paid the first yr fine. and lost their job before they could pay the second year. As a result. they couldn't get a job in their field. and they had to park a car that they were struggling to make car payments on.

Opal Fisher

Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 3:20 a.m.

This is the sickest law I've had the unfortunate pleasure to know. I would love to be able to afford to carry insurance on my car. I participate in the WorksFirst program, hold 3 part time jobs, and gross about 500 bucks a month including a cash payment from the state. Now I have to do busy work for 30 hours a week so I can get that money, which I don't mind doing, I spend that much time looking for a job anyways. I am homeless, living with my mom and 3 kids in a one bedroom cabin, and am one every waiting list for public housing that there is. Now the state won't help me pay for insurance, but I have to look for work every day and that means I have to drive. I pay rent, part of the bills, internet (for job search purposes), storage unit fee, and gas in my car. I have no insurance, got popped with the law, and payed over 900 dollars to get my license back, put a months worth of insurance on my car, and pay the extra fee. Well, it's year two, another 200 bucks to pay that I don't have, and guess what? I still don't have car insurance, because I still can't afford it. The fee didn't help me see the error of my ways, I know I'm supposed to have insurance. I cant afford it! And the fees equal to about 4 months worth of insurance that I could have had on my car if I hadn't needed to pay those fees. I am a criminal because I am poor. Welcome to America!

richard kaisley

Sun, Oct 30, 2011 : 12:43 a.m.

Thanks for writing this great article. Bruce Caswell's bill 0166 to repeal much of the DRA has PASSED the Senate and is now in the House for voting soon. If you want to help me oppose the DRA consider joining my Facebook group for all the updated news: <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> And if you want to read my long overdue examination of the DRA read my essay here: <a href="" rel='nofollow'>;pli=1</a> But most importantly look up your state House representative and tell them to support voting for bill 0166 to repeal the DRA!

Jim Walker

Mon, Oct 17, 2011 : 5:12 p.m.

Total repeal of the Driver Responsibility Act (DRA) with HB4816 is the better option. A Senate Fiscal Agency analysis in 2006 showed the serious violations were UP, not down, with the DRA. The law never accomplished what the original supporters promised, as knowledgeable people knew in advance that it wouldn't. I spoke on behalf of the National Motorists Association (NMA) in favor of the token partial repeal at the hearing for SB166, because it would at least start the process of repealing this monstrosity. The NMA spoke in opposition to the DRA at the original hearings in 2003 and in three other hearings since that time. This was never a safety law, it was always a money grab law. Most judges hate the DRA because they have no options to impose other penalties on someone who has zero chance to ever pay the huge fines. Many judges refuse to take guilty pleas from people they know can never pay the DRA fines - they plead them to something else. One judge at a hearing in 2006 called the DRA a &quot;Debtor's Prison&quot;. Many police officers refuse to issue citations for common offenses when they would put the person deeper in the financial hole. Several legislators who originally supported the law have publicly &quot;apologized for what the legislature has done&quot;. Call your Representatives and Senators in Lansing and tell them you prefer total repeal with HB4816, but to at least take this token first step to get rid of about 10% of the law with SB166. James C. Walker, National Motorists Association, Ann Arbor, MI


Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 6:01 p.m.

To those people who wonder about the proof of insurance thing and wonder about whehter or not you can just show up in a courtroom and prove you do have insurance - the answer is yes. HOWEVER, the problem witht this law is a lot of people don't even know it exists and the police do not tell you. Here's how my failure to put the new insurance certificate in my car one month after I got updated ones cost me almost $600 a few years ago... Got pulled over because I crossed a line late at night on a 2-lane highway with no other traffic, officer thought I might be drunk but I wasn't (hey, I don't mind the check I actually like it). Ok, I wasn't drunk but I needed to show him license/registration/insurance etc. I had my insurance card from a month ago that was expired but we had new ones at home, I just hadn't put it in my car yet. So he writes me a ticket for not having it...and the ticket says on it &quot;no proof of insurance&quot;. So I figure OK this sucks but I didn't have the proof of insurance so I'll just pay the $100 or so dollar fine because I didn't have proof of insurance...I didn't know that it would turn into a NO insurance ticket (which I never had). So months and months go by and I don't think anything of it - until I got a letter in the mail from the Sec of State saying that my license had been suspended for a couple weeks now due to unpaid drivers responsibility fee - woah what's this, for no insurance? But I had insurance...but now its too late and I owe $200 dollars plus some like 50 dollar fee to get my license reinstated plus I have to lose a day work because I had a job doing deliveries back then and needed a license. Of course its too late to go before a judge at this point and then I owed $200 dollars AGAIN. Luckily, I had the money to pay the fines right away but I understand how it can add up quickly. If I had been pulled over during that time I didn't have my license, there would be another 1000+ in fines. Let's repeal this law!


Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 4:59 p.m.

&quot;If an officer pulls you over and you can't show proof of insurance, you have to pay a fee of $200, and the following year, you have to pay another $200. That's simply not fair.&quot; My wife had to pay this exact penalty. Not for not having insurance, but simply not being able to locate a piece of paper while the officer was waiting. It's the same penalty for someone who actually is out on the road and doesn't even have insurance coverage. How do commenters here think that's fair? The officer (or the entire point of this law) isn't enforcing purchasing or especially 'keeping' insurance on an automobile. Anybody can walk into an insurance agency, pay the initial fee (month or two months down) for insurance, and never make the subsequent payments to continue the coverage and at least have a piece of paper that says they are insured for 6 months. I've known many people who simply only worried about purchasing insurance when they needed to renew the tags on their license plates. Its true that many aspects of this law are nothing but a money grab. Still I see people daily that tailgate relentlessly, drive way over the speed limit, and drive carelessly in every way imaginable. Yet our officers are wasting time on this money grab of a law.


Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 6:03 p.m.

Bingo - might not have realized that a &quot;no proof of insurance&quot; turns into &quot;no insurance,.&quot; Its especially silly too because I know many people who ride around after paying their insurance for 1-month just to get the 'proof&quot; and then not paying it again or they have a fake &quot;proof&quot; of insurance card.

Kara H

Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 5:53 p.m.

@jake: It doesn't matter per the specific anecdote. Maybe she forgot (penalize her! she's careless!) or maybe as a generally &quot;law abiding citizen&quot; she didn't even realize that the responsibility fees existed and just figured it was more hassle to show up at the courthouse than it was to pay the default judgement (penalize her! she's irresponsible!). Who cares? The real point is that these ongoing fees can affect anybody and are over and above the amount of the actual infraction. If an infraction is $250 or $1000 bad, that's what the ticket price should be. Michigan shouldn't be charging its citizens an additional sin tax for the next 2 years. Why 2? Why not 1? Heck, why not 5?

Jake C

Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 5:31 p.m.

Maybe you can help clear this up for me. The web page on this subject says that if you show up at the courthouse with your proof of insurance after you get the ticket, the Driver Responsibility fees will be waived. Was there some reason this didn't work for your wife?


Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 4:51 p.m.

Just obey the laws and you won't have to pay any &quot;oppressive&quot; fines. As a law abiding citizen I have no problem with that.

Kara H

Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 5:19 p.m.

I have no intention of breaking any laws, but it would be wrong for me as a citizen to have no concern that those laws and the penalties for them are applied fair and justly, just because I think that they will never affect me. BTW, even &quot;law-abiding citizens&quot; run afoul of traffic violations every once in awhile--just plain law of large numbers, drive enough and eventually you get something wrong.


Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 4:03 p.m.

All of the revenue gained from traffic infractions should go straight to the state's general education fund. And state funding for police should be increased to offset their losses. Nobody wins when the police are expected to fund themselves by collecting from the rest of us.

Ron Granger

Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 2:15 p.m.

Thank Jennifer Granhold for this. A governor who can't even drive a car and who does not have a drivers license. In the past, not having the piece of paper &quot;proof&quot; of insurance meant a fix it ticket. You showed up at the police station with your proof within 10 days and it went away - because you were insured all along. Now, it's multiple punitive fines. Even if you actually had insurance. That's completely unreasonable. The state spent millions on a computer system to track our insurance. They know you have insurance, and it could be verified without the piece of paper. The paper doesn't even guarantee there is insurance. Michigan government is a desperate animal. Desperate and starving for our dollars. They will take those dollars from those who remain in Michigan any way they can.

Basic Bob

Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 8:02 p.m.

Don, hopefully it wasn't far from your house. Imagine if it was in the UP.


Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 6:52 p.m.

Mr Granger - you can still show up with the paper and it is fixed. I had to do that for my son a few weeks ago.


Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 2:10 p.m.

you liberal rag, what did I say that was offensive this time?

Jeff Irwin

Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 2:07 p.m.

I agree that we need to eliminate of these driver responsibility fees and we've had some discussion about the matter in the Judiciary committee. Unfortunately, the Republicans haven't been convinced. . . yet. I'll keep working on them to find elements of common ground and get some productive legislation passed. The data on this experiment seems clear. It doesn't accomplish anything except increase the percentage of drivers without a license or insurance in Michigan. That's bad for all of us.


Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 2:01 p.m.

Sorry Mr Dearing - Here is where you and I disagree. Making people prove they have insurance, when they did not in the past. Making them prove they have a driver's license when they did not in the past and check up on people who drove drunk, all cost the state money. The responsibility fees, in my mind help cover those costs. They helped produce the need to keep records, they can help pay for the records to be maintained and made available. I could agree that for some minor offenses that the fees should be dropped. But for driving without a license, leaving the scene, driving drunk, and other major offenses - they should stay. If you do it, you should help pay to cover the future costs. It also reminds you not to do it again, and that is an important part of the responsibility fee - it reminds you in your pocket book.


Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 1:58 p.m.

Drive safer and don't break the law, isn't that the purpose. I would think if you didn't have insurance, or current drivers license you might not speed or run a red light, but what the heck lets do it anyway because I don't have any money. Maybe I have it wrong, it's a right and not a privelge to drive? I do agree,they are sticking to the joe public but isn't that what governments normally do for their incompetance and lack of forsight when it comes to running a business?


Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 1:48 p.m.

Hey &quot;Representative&quot; Irwin! Here's something constructive you can do. Help abolish this atrocity.

Ryan J. Stanton

Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 5:59 p.m.

Jeff Irwin is one of the sponsors of HB 4816 <a href="" rel='nofollow'>;objectName=2011-HB-4816</a>


Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 1:17 p.m.

Agree for the most part except for those that drive without insurance. They need to have their license revoked on the spot because they are costing the rest of us tons of money. There also needs to be a way for the police to verify on the spot if someones proof of insurance is valid. Too many people get insurance and then cancel after they get their paperwork from their insurance company. And those that get in a wreck without insurance and get hurt should not be allowed to collect money from the fund mandated by the state. Good Day


Mon, Oct 17, 2011 : 12:02 a.m.

Don, police do NOT have the ability to check insurance other than calling the company that issued the alleged insurance certificate. LEIN does not have access to private insurance carriers.

Basic Bob

Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 7:58 p.m.

Others get hit with fees, not because they cancelled their insurance, but because they forgot to put the new card in the glove compartment. It's a bad law that simply adds unjustified annual fees to legitimate fines.


Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 1:56 p.m.

snoopdog - There is a way, the officer has access to insurance information through the LEIN from most companies. If you can tell them who your insurance carrier is, or the policy number, they can verify that you have valid insurance. It takes about 30 seconds.


Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 12:45 p.m.

Again someone whining about being made responsible for their behavior! I think these laws and penalties are great and DO have an impact upon drivers. A recent note made it clear that drunk driving is decreasing largely due to the impact of these laws. Scofflaws are going to ignore them until they get caught again or leave the area such as undocumented aliens, who can get a driver's license in Michigan! Those who commit the crime, rich, middle class or poor, need to be held responsible for their acts as that tends to deter repeat offenders. You bet it hurts, but they think more carefully about having insurance proof or the correct documentation with them. Ask those arrested if they would like to spend the equivalent time in jail (at our collective expense) or pay the fine &amp; most will take the fines every time.

Kara H

Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 4:51 p.m.

But those who receive a traffic violation are already responsible (as they should be) for paying the ticket. The &quot;driver responsibility fees&quot; are an additional penalty for 2 years after the infraction. The state can raise the ticket fees if they feel they must in order to deter infractions. But to continue to criminalize and penalize someone after they've paid the court mandated fine for that infraction with additional fees, just because now they've proven what a bad person they are and we can sock it to bad people and their sins, is a weird combination of sanctimonious and underhanded.


Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 12:27 p.m.

Tony, Nice article. Minor quibble: second paragraph, last sentence. &quot;onerous dees&quot; should probably be &quot;fees&quot;.

Tony Dearing

Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 8:58 p.m.

Thanks. That's been corrected.


Sun, Oct 16, 2011 : 11:10 a.m.

Excellent article, Tony. Thank you!