Maryland could find itself with some new residents after July 1, when Virginia is set to impose hefty civil traffic fines.
The "abuse fines" were tucked in the Commonwealth's $1-billion 2007 transportation bill. At the time Virginia politicians, including Governor Tim Kaine, hailed the surcharges as both a way to fill a funding gap without raising taxes and a way to teach bad drivers a lesson. On the face of it, that's a wise political move since southerners don't like new taxes and they like their justice swift and certain, in theory at least...
In reality, the looming fines have talk shows a'buzzing and blogs a'bloggin'. Callers to WTOP, a DC-area radio station, recently gave the governor an earful, some threatening to flee to neighboring Maryland. Those are strong words in context. Many Virginians have chosen to live in the Commonwealth because it has long been seen as a low-tax alternative to Maryland.
Virginians are right to be up in arms. The fines are out of proportion to the driving offenses. Virginia residents convicted of misdemeanor or felony traffic violations will be assessed the new surcharges. For instance, Virginia residents convicted of reckless driving will face an additional $1,050 charge on top of the normal $100 fine. Out-of-state drivers convicted of offenses in Virginia - for reasons that are unclear to me - don't pay the surcharge.
An out-of-state resident convicted of drunk driving in Virginia pays $250. The Virginian pays an additional $2,250. See a general explanation of the new civil fines issued recently by the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court.
Many may have ignored news of the fines until now because they believe their safe driving will protect them. But reckless driving can include everything from exceeding the speed limit by 20 mph - 78 in a 55 mph zone - to failing to display a turn signal. Drivers with less serious charges will also be charged fees if they acquire eight or more points on their driving record.
Politicians who voted for the bill protest that the fines are necessary to ensure safety on Virginia's roads. That's nice rhetoric, but not terribly convincing given that Virginia is already one of the safest driving states in the union, according to the Commonwealth's own data:
Virginia's 2004 rate of 1.17 fatalities per 100 million vehicle-miles of travel was lower than the national average of 1.44 and gives Virginia the 10th-lowest fatalities rate among the states.
It may be of no importance that Assembly delegate and the chief architect of the bill, David Albo, is also a named partner in one of northern Virginia's most prominent traffic defense firms. Still, The Virginia-Pilot reports,
[T]he hefty penalties could be a bonanza for the politically connected law firms that chase down unpaid court fines.
In all but one city in South Hampton Roads, these firms have exclusive contracts that pay them as much as 30 percent of the amount collected.
One of them, Huff, Poole & Mahoney of Virginia Beach, earned more than $2 million in collection fees in fiscal 2006.
Virginia is right to expand and improve its transportation infrastructure, but there are better ways to raise the 41 percent increase in transportation funding in this year's transportation bill. Toll financing is at least one financing mechanism that the Reason Foundation has long championed.