Hit the Brakes: State Governments Raise Traffic Fees

LOS ANGELES – Shomari Jennings was willing to pay the $70 ticket he received for driving without a seatbelt, but not the slew of tacked-on fees and penalties that ballooned the cost more than tenfold.

Every $10 of his base fine triggered a $26 "penalty assessment" for courthouse construction, a DNA identification program, emergency medical services and other programs. Other fees ranged from $1 to $35.

"It's the new tax," Jennings, 30, complained while waiting in traffic court to contest a staggering bill compounded by a $500 fine for missing a court date.

And motorists can only expect more of the same as cash-strapped cities and states consider measures ranging from expansion of red-light camera systems to charging drivers for cleanup after accidents.

In Iowa, lawmakers grappling with shortfalls in the state's public safety budget are exploring ways to increase fines for traffic violations. There's a proposal in Maryland to add a $7.50 charge to traffic fines to help pay for law enforcement and fire protection equipment.

Cash-strapped California, however, is seeing some of the most aggressive efforts to squeeze money out of motorists.

Last year, lawmakers agreed to a budget deal that nearly doubled the vehicle license fee that owners pay when they register their cars every year. The fee rose from .65 percent of a vehicle's value to 1.15 percent. A significant portion of the revenue goes to the state's general fund, and the rest to local crime prevention programs.

This year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested retrofitting 500 city and county traffic cameras to cite not only drivers who blow through red lights but speeders, too. The state, facing a $20 billion deficit, would collect 85 percent of the money, using the projected $338 million to help pay for courts and court security.

An estimated 60 local governments, including fire protection districts and municipalities, have in place or are considering plans to send accident cleanup bills to drivers involved in a crash, according to the Association of California Insurance Companies.

"It's really victimizing people twice," said Samuel Sorich, the association's president.

Many insurance companies do not cover cleanup fees, he added, and if the practice becomes widespread it could lead to higher premiums.

In Los Angeles, city officials are thinking about doubling red-light cameras to 64 intersections. Last year, 44,000 red-light camera tickets were issued in the city, netting more than $6 million.

The fine for running a red light is nearly $500 when city and county fees combined with various penalty assessments, which are set by the Legislature, and traffic school are factored in. The majority of the red-light camera citations, however, were for making right turns without a full stop, a $381 violation.

Steve Finnegan, government affairs manager for the Automobile Club of Southern California, said the cameras are justified when they're intended to stop drivers from running red lights, but when they're used for citing less dangerous right-turn violations motorists can get cynical about their purpose.

"One has to question if finance isn't a part of the motivating factor for putting in these cameras," Finnegan said.

He noted that Schwarzenegger's red-light camera idea was included in a budget proposal.

"This is clearly a financial proposal," he said. "It's not being driven by safety consideration."

The importance of revenue from traffic fines is evident in the competition among governments to control it.

A Los Angeles city councilman who is critical of the high cost of red-light tickets thinks it can be reduced if the city starts to process the citations. Dennis Zine contends that the switch would increase revenue for the city and take some of the burden off the county courts.

State Sen. Jenny Oropeza, however, has introduced legislation prohibiting local governments from collecting and keeping traffic fines.

Zine argues that the city pays for the cameras as well as training and equipping police.

"The state collects a majority of the fine for doing nothing when we're burdened with all the responsibilities," he said.

Los Angeles, which is facing a $212 million budget gap this fiscal year, is also lobbying to change the state vehicle code to allow placement of immobilizing "boots" on cars with as few as three unpaid parking tickets. Currently, the law allows booting after five accumulated parking tickets.

The change could help the city collect up to $61 million in overdue parking citations, according to a transportation department analysis.

Drivers, meanwhile, already face a greater likelihood of being hit with fines under existing laws. Citations for traffic infractions across Los Angeles County in the last fiscal year jumped more than 150,000 above the previous year's 1.67 million, indicating stepped-up enforcement.

In the midst of recession, that means more people coming to court to fight tickets or to admit fault and ask to perform community service instead of paying fines.

Coupled with reduced hours and furlough days due to state budget cuts, the result is long lines of people snaking out the door of the county's biggest traffic court.

"That's not surprising if your red light ticket is now $500," said Judge Gail Ruderman Feuer, who supervises the Metropolitan courthouse. "You have more people coming into court in hopes of getting a break."

But even a break can have too high a price.

Lupe Ocaranza, 20, said she was assigned 60 hours of service in lieu of a $500 fine for driving with an expired license. After doing 27 hours of janitorial duties at a school she decided to pay a reduced $270 fine.

"I can't afford to miss work for this," she said.