Follow the money

It was one of those ideas that look great on paper: Sock drivers convicted of serious driving offenses with super-fines — up to $3,000 extra — and devote the money to highway improvements.

Virginia, following New Jersey and Michigan, enacted such a law. It went into effect July 1 and already the state is having second thoughts, a cautionary lesson for states thinking of doing likewise.

The thinking was that the heavy-duty fines — “abuser fees,” in certain circles — would improve traffic safety. The anecdotal evidence is that they do not; in fact, they may do the opposite. What the law does do is fall most heavily on the poor. What it also does is raise money, and this unfortunately may trump the law’s drawbacks.

One harsh critic of the law is William Buhl, a circuit-court judge in Michigan, which has had the law since 2003. Buhl told The Washington Post, whose circulation covers a large swath of Virginia:

“I think it is a very destructive piece of legislation that is designed primarily for revenue purposes and is disguised as a highway-safety measure. In my opinion, it increases the dangers on the highways because it creates an enormous, growing pool of unlicensed motorists.”

In addition to an extra fine that can reach $3,000, Virginia tacks on a surcharge of $100 for drivers with eight points on their records plus $75 for each additional point. The driver’s license is suspended for nonpayment.

But evidence shows that many keep on driving anyway, with — again, anecdotally — the additional incentive of trying to flee a traffic stop.

The revenue forecasts tend to be excessively rosy. Michigan has a collection rate of only 40 percent on its super-fines. But like any source of cash to a government — Virginia hopes to get $65 million from them — the super-fines, once enacted, are proving tough to repeal.

There seems to be growing support in Michigan for repealing a law that is unfair and ineffective, but Gov. Jennifer Granholm is opposed. She says the state needs the money.