THE PROSPECT of paying an additional $1,050 for driving 20 mph over the speed limit is riling many Virginians this week, as a new law that slaps heavy fees on the commonwealth's bad drivers is about to come into force. Some of the worry is overblown, but the critics also raise some legitimate concerns.
As of July 1, Virginians will be liable for steep fees if they are caught perpetrating any from a range of on-road misdeeds. The fees apply to first-time offenders for crimes such as driving without a license ($900) and driving under the influence ($2,250) -- and in Virginia driving 20 mph above the limit can qualify as reckless driving. Also, if you accrue more than eight points on your Virginia driver's license, you will have to pay $100 plus $75 for each additional point. The law's supporters point out that few drivers would end up paying these new fees -- indeed, only 2 percent usually have more than eight points against them, according to Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). The money raised, meanwhile, will go to road maintenance. There's some logic in charging drivers who cause the most damage to roads to pay for their upkeep. Dangerous driving also should carry serious penalties.
But the genesis of the new policy contributes to doubts about whether these penalties were shaped purely to fit the crimes. Republicans in the General Assembly refused in doctrinaire fashion to raise taxes this year to pay for desperately needed road maintenance and improvement. Instead they scrounged for other revenue sources, including these new fees. This history renders the fees open to the criticism that they are calibrated to raise money rather than to deter bad driving.
Even as a revenue source, the scheme is far from ideal. Virginia traffic court officials expect to be overwhelmed with confusion and additional challenges. The new fees also apply only to Virginia residents. Raising the gas tax a few cents, on the other hand, would have generated a large amount from Virginians and non-Virginians alike. Separately, the General Assembly could have focused on assessing new fees according to the magnitude of the offense, a task better performed when the legislature is not frantically staving off a meager tax increase.