OP-ED: Virginians Deserve a Motorist Bill of Rights
R. McCarty, M. Beaudoin, M. Ginsberg, M. Tamargo & C. Dunn | The Republican Standard
The Motorist Bill of Rights would not only fight crony capitalism but help restore integrity and trust in government.
Virginia Republicans’ recent victories present the Party with enormous opportunities to pursue agenda items that can satisfy our electorate and cement our electoral gains; these opportunities must be seized. Although this year’s elections went well, Republicans must not be lulled into a sense of complacency because, outside of education reform policies, the Party has little to sell in the more densely-populated areas of the Commonwealth. Time and time again, we have seen that income and real estate tax cuts, support for the 2nd Amendment, and protecting unborn lives do not attract the independent and crossover Democrat votes we need to win elections in heavily populated blue areas. Consequently, we must find new issues that potential crossover voters care about and potentially align them with Republicans without abandoning our core principles. In addition to Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin’s commonsense, kitchen-table agenda, we propose passing a Motorist Bill of Rights, which would resonate with swing voters. Virginia has roughly six million motorists out of a population of approximately 8.6 million. Of course, many motorists live in urban or suburban areas. For many of these motorists, vehicles are essential to their livelihoods, from Uber drivers to sales representatives to hospice nurses.
Virginia has roughly six million motorists out of a population of approximately 8.6 million. Of course, many motorists live in urban or suburban areas. For many of these motorists, vehicles are essential to their livelihoods, from Uber drivers to sales representatives to hospice nurses.
Yet too often motorists face a state and localities that, through their vehicle laws, regulations, and practices, are looking for ways to raise revenue off their backs using trivial vehicular offenses. These laws, regulations, and practices frequently are not intended to improve safety on our roads, but to raise revenue for state and local jurisdictions.
Examples of abuses of Virginia motorists are not hard to find. Places such as Emporia, Hopewell, and Windsor have become known as speed trap towns, using speeding tickets to collect substantial revenue. Politicians also pile “court costs,” for items such as court security and maintenance, on top of these tickets. Citizens already pay taxes to maintain and secure courts; they should not have to pay a second time on top of a traffic ticket.
Red light cameras line the pockets of crony capitalists and encourage public corruption. For example, two red light camera companies have been caught bribing government officials to install or protect these cameras because these companies receive a cut of the fines, frequently 28-35 percent and sometimes more. Officials have been bribed in multiple states, allegedly including Virginia. As another example, two Hampton Roads localities shortened yellow lights after installing red light cameras, which results in more tickets being issued.
These predatory practices are deeply regressive, hurting working-class voters who can ill-afford the fines and penalties associated with violations. Additionally, they contribute to mistrust and tension between law enforcement and the citizenry. Citizens know when their government is treating them as an ATM.
In Northern Virginia and throughout Virginia, tolls have become astronomical. A one-way trip on the Dulles Toll Road can cost as much as $4.75. Workers who take the Dulles Toll Road to work every day spend nearly $10 a day to commute to work. HOV roads such as Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway can have fees on the order of $20-$30 one-way during HOV hours. These costs are divorced from any realistic amount needed to maintain the roadway. Not everyone has the luxury of carpooling.
And perhaps nothing elicits a knowing smile or heads nodding in agreement than complaints about the inefficiency and inconvenience of the Department of Motor Vehicles. While it is something of a running joke, the fact is that the DMV is terribly inefficient and inconvenient. That has real economic costs both for individuals and in the aggregate.
Our laws should reflect the critical role that transportation plays in individual’s lives and protect Virginia’s taxpayers from the over-zealous, predatory practices current law permits and promotes.
That is why we propose a Motorist Bill of Rights.
Many states, including California, Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and North Dakota have considered increasing motorist protections. Virginia should do the same.
Our proposed Motorist Bill of Rights has 15 points:
- Virginia should enact a traffic ticket quota ban, as about 20 states have already done. These bans are overwhelmingly popular with both the public and police officers. A poll conducted earlier this year found that nearly 82%of Virginia voters support a ticket quota ban.
- Virginia should ban the practice of using unmarked police vehicles to make routine traffic stops. Routine stops for minor infractions should only be conducted with marked vehicles for the protection of the public. There are regular news articles about police imposters in unmarked vehicles making traffic stops. While most of these incidents end without violence, some of them result in robberies or worse. There is no good reason to keep taking these chances. The law should be changed to make it harder for fake cops to trick people into pulling over.
- Virginia should ban red light cameras.Red light cameras are not popular, arguably violate our Constitutional rights, and, as described previously, line the pockets of crony capitalists and encourage public corruption. Over 75%of Virginia voters support banning these cameras.
- Virginia should ban speed cameras for similar reasons. Over 72%of Virginia voters support banning these cameras.
- Virginia should rein in speed trap towns. Taxation by citation is wrong and undermines the people’s faith in law enforcement, the justice system, and the government generally. To address this problem, any locality that collects more than 1% of its general fund from traffic and parking tickets should be required to turn over the excess revenue to the Commonwealth. Over 77%of Virginia voters support reining in speed trap towns.
- Virginia should join the nine states that allow motorists to contest traffic tickets by mail. Not everyone has reliable transportation or the ability to take a day off to contest their tickets. Even for those who have the ability to get to court, it is largely a waste of everyone’s time. It would be much more efficient if both defendants and officers could write out their versions of events, mail them in or submit them electronically, and let judges sort out the truth. This would reduce the strain on both staff and court facilities. Over 70% of Virginia voters support this reform.
- Virginia should prohibit “court costs” and “convenience fees.” When a judge fines motorists $100, that is the amount that they should pay, not over $160 after “court costs” are included. As for “convenience fees,” most businesses charge the same amount whether a customer is paying with cash or credit, and the government should do the same. How many times must motorists pay for the same driving infractions? After all, moving violations often result in fines, points on drivers’ records, higher insurance rates, and lost job opportunities.
- Virginia should abolish interest and cap late fees on tickets; late fees on unpaid traffic tickets should be reduced to no more than $50. Tickets should discourage bad driving habits, not provide windfall profits to localities or bury motorists in mountains of debt. Abolishing interest and capping late fees at $50, both retroactively and going forward, would help struggling families to pay their debts and move on with their lives. By slashing the amounts owed for unpaid tickets, states and localities across the country have been able to clear many tickets off of their books and to collect additional revenue, and there is no reason to think that it would not help here too. Nearly 77% of Virginia voters support eliminating interest and reducing late fees on tickets.
- Virginia should stop blocking car registrations over unpaid tickets and tolls. The inability to pay tickets and tolls is unrelated to whether or not motorists are safe drivers. Furthermore, if motorists cannot legally drive their vehicle, how are they ever supposed to pay the money they owe?
- Virginia should restrict tolls and toll collections. Tolls should be capped at a reasonable amount per mile of toll road (with separate rates for tunnels and bridges), and toll revenue should be required to be spent on maintaining or upgrading toll roads or alternate routes to the toll road (and reasonable rates of return for toll road companies). Tolling authorities should be required to bill motorists on a monthly basis for unpaid tolls, and late fees should be limited to a total of no more than $5 per month per motorist. It should not be possible for a few dollars in tolls to turn into thousands of dollars in fees as has happened in the past in Virginia. After all, sometimes tolls are not paid because bills are mailed to the wrong address, and sometimes people are billed for trips they never took.
- Virginia should allow the private sector to fully compete with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Throughout the pandemic, the DMV utterly failed motorists. While retail stores remained open, the DMV shut down; and when it did resume operations, the DMV chose to only serve customers with appointments. That is not acceptable. People need to be able to go to the DMV when they have the opportunity to do so; and not everyone has access to the internet or the computer skills necessary to book an online appointment. Virginia should follow the example set by Arizona where private sector agents are allowed to perform all DMV functions. You had better believe that the private sector would do a much better job of serving the public than the DMV has. Of course, allowing the private sector to perform DMV services also reduces costs to taxpayers.
- Virginia should reduce the number of mandatory inspections. Because nearly everyone’s vehicles pass the emissions inspections, they are a waste of time and money for Northern Virginia motorists. Rather than require these inspections, Virginia should use the roadside testing devices to inform motorists of emissions problems with their vehicles. Additionally, Virginia should lower the cap on the amount of money that motorists can be required to pay to fix emission problems to no more than $400. After all, surveys in recent years have shown that more than a third of Americans would have difficulty paying $400 in an emergency.
Rather than requiring annual safety inspections, Virginia should either eliminate the inspections or move to two-year inspections. Over 68% of Virginia voters support moving to two-year inspections. Virginia is one of only 15 states that requires periodic inspections; 16 states since the 1970s have ended their mandatory inspection programs, and not a single one has felt the need to reinstate the inspections; Several years ago, the Government Accountability Office studied the effectiveness of inspection programs; its conclusion was that the data is “inconclusive” as to whether inspections affect crash rates. If the effectiveness of inspections isn’t clear after eight decades of these mandates, at what point can we reasonably expect the evidence to materialize?
- Virginia should crack down on predatory towing. Currently, predatory towing companies are allowed to act as judge, jury, and executioner; they decide whether you’ve parked illegally, they decide how much they will charge you, and they will not release your vehicle until you have paid — sometimes demanding payment in cash even though that is contrary to the law. Each year, tens of thousands of vehicles are towed nonconsensually in Virginia. Some portion of these vehicles are never returned to their owners because they cannot afford the exorbitant towing and storage fees. While Virginia does have a cap on towing fees, that cap can be raised by localities, and state law on towing advisory boards is frankly ridiculous.
Currently, towing advisory boards are required to consist of an equal number of towing industry representatives and police plus one single representative of the public. Some localities have 5- or 7-member advisory boards, with only one member of the public — and that member of the public may be a poor representative with a conflict of interest. Furthermore, companies that have ‘F’ ratings from the Better Business Bureau are allowed to serve on these boards. Is it any wonder that, with boards stacked against the public, these boards are able to pass recommendations to hike towing fees? If these boards are going to exist they must be restructured to make them more representative of their communities and to reduce conflicts of interest.
Virginia should require predatory towing companies to immediately return vehicles to their owners when they show up to retrieve their vehicles. They should not be permitted to hold cars for ransom and then keep or sell them because the fees have grown too large for the owner to pay. If motorists insist they were parked legally and refuse to pay, towing companies can always take the vehicle owners to court and provide evidence to the judge that they are entitled to payment. Nearly 74% of Virginia voters support this reform.
Also, Virginia should require that predatory towing companies wait at least 15 minutes after a motorist leaves their vehicle before towing it. Sometimes parking rules are unclear, or a guest needs to pick up a visitor tag from a friend or from the office at a hotel or apartment complex. A 15-minute grace period would help avoid needless tows over mistakes.
Finally, predatory towing companies should be barred from towing vehicles due to expired registration or inspection stickers, and these companies should be required to give motorists 30 days to fix or remove inoperable vehicles from multifamily housing complexes and communities run by homeowner associations before the vehicles may be towed.
- Virginia should set up a statewide trespass towing database to find towed vehicles as Utah has done. As you can imagine, when your vehicle is towed, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out which police department to call to try to track down your vehicle. Furthermore, a statewide database would provide valuable data to both lawmakers and the media about the scope and nature of the predatory towing problem.
- Virginia should abolish the car tax. Virginia has one of the highest car taxes in the country, and the tax is hated. Vowing to cut the car tax was a brilliant decision by Governor Jim Gilmore, and it would be wise for Republicans to follow his lead on this issue. In fact, over 80%of Virginia voters support abolishing the car tax.
Republicans made gains in Northern Virginia this year, but there is a lot more work to do. That is why we must work relentlessly to identify and solve problems that the Democrats have ignored or exacerbated while pursuing their out-of-touch, “woke” agenda — without losing our base. One of these real problems is that motorists are being shaken down and losing their vehicles, or the right to use them. Because many people are dependent upon their vehicles, seizing or disallowing the use of a vehicle should be settled in law as a last resort, not a first.
Among other things, the above recommended pro-motorist policies would increase fairness, improve public safety, save taxpayers’ money and time, clean up the government’s books, fight crony capitalism, and help restore integrity and trust in government. Finally, not only would a Motorist Bill of Rights help a lot of struggling families across the Commonwealth, but it would also be popular with voters, as the polling shows.
Richard McCarty, Melissa Beaudoin, Mike Ginsberg, Mauricio Tamargo, and Cliff Dunn all serve as current or former members of the Republicans Party of Virginia’s State Central Committee.