Even good drivers get an occasional ticket. But in the last several years, there has been a perverse incentive for eagle-eyed enforcement officers to issue even more citations. We are now discovering that California drivers are a goldmine for government by the imposition of traffic fines that are absurdly excessive.
As recently as 2005, a ticket for drivers going from one to 15 mph over the speed limit in California would cost $99. This would include a base fine of $25 and additional charges of $74 to be shared with the state, the county, the courts and other programs. Only nine years later the same ticket would include a base fine of $35 and another $203 to be divided among the usual suspects for a total of $238.
Currently, a ticket with a fine of $120 will cost the motorist about $627 by the time all the additional charges are added. These penalty assessments are running more than four times the base fine.
Years ago, the idea behind traffic fines was to encourage safe driving by penalizing those who put themselves and others in danger. In 1953, the first penalty assessment was established at the rate of one dollar for every $20 in base fine. In those days the proceeds of the additional charge went to fund driver education in schools. Today, the additional charges go to pay for state and local programs and to build and renovate courthouses.
No one seems to know exactly how much government rakes in from fines and the penalty assessments, but a study dating back to 2006, when the charges were much smaller, estimated the revenue at over a half billion dollars a year.
State Senator Robert Hertzberg has introduced legislation to help those who have lost drivers licenses due to failure to pay non-public safety related tickets. Concerned that local jurisdictions have piled on fees for minor traffic violations to make up for lost revenue during the recession, he wants to match these drivers up with an amnesty program proposed by Jerry Brown that would reduce fines by 50 percent for eligible participants.
The problem is that both Hertzberg and Brown, while trying to help low income drivers, are ignoring the elephant in the room. That is the millions of average folks for whom a traffic ticket can result in having to forgo almost a week’s pay. Those in public office do not want to stand up for the typical motorists because they are not about to give up the income these punitive fines provide.
There’s no reason for these grossly inflated fines -- fines that far exceed what is needed to deter unsafe driving -- other than to provide the politicians with more spending money.
Excessive traffic fines are yet another example of the war being waged against the middle class by the political elite who have already burdened California drivers with high gas taxes and registration fees. For the rich, a $500 traffic fine is no big deal. For a working family, it may mean skipping a few meals.
So while the majority party in California loves to talk about how much they look out for the middle class, the reality is that they really don’t care.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.