Driving in Michigan is usually a pretty terrible experience. During the warmer months, every road seems like it’s infested with potholes or under construction, causing lengthy delays. In the winter, positively Arctic weather brings slippery roads and blinding snowstorms that result in accidents and even worse traffic delays. And on top of the road conditions themselves, Michigan drivers have to make sure they don’t violate traffic laws, because with the state’s draconian driver responsibility fees, you end up paying twice.

These fees came into existence because of the Granholm-backed Driver Responsibility Law of 2003. The intention of the law was to make roads safer while bringing in more money for the state government. Six years later, only one of these intentions has become a reality: there’s no evidence that Michigan roads are safer, but the government has certainly profited.

The Driver Responsibility Law imposes a fee on certain offenses in addition to the ticket itself. These range from the understandable $1,000 fee for drunken driving to the purely ridiculous $200 fee for not having insurance or proof of insurance. These fees are in addition to any other fine a driver incurs for breaking the law.

And while such fees were never desirable, many Michigan drivers just can’t afford to pay extra during the economy’s downturn. That’s because in the long run, driver responsibility fees disproportionately harm low-income people who have to prioritize their expenses and can’t afford to be hit with extra fees. Regrettably, not everyone in the state can afford to have car insurance, even though they need to drive in order to have jobs and make money. Well, the fee for not having car insurance is $200, and if they don’t pay at least some of the fee within 60 days, their license is suspended. Getting your license reinstated is an extra fee that some can’t afford to pay, so these motorists end up driving without a license, which will net them another fee.

This cycle of fees puts economically-disadvantaged drivers in a deeper and deeper hole because to make money at a job, they have to drive. In a Feb. 8 article by the Lansing Bureau entitled “Michigan’s fees on uninsured motorists only compound problem for struggling taxpayers”, St. Joseph District Judge Jeffrey Middleton said it’s “not uncommon… to see defendants who owe $5,000 to $10,000 to the state. Unless they win the lottery, these people have little hope of ever regaining their lawful driving privileges.”

If these fees are especially bad for people in light of the economy, why exactly do we still have them? The purpose was to deter dangerous driving and make some money for the state. Well, there’s no evidence that traffic infractions are deterred because of these fees. In a Grand Haven Tribune article from Jan. 19, 2007 titled “Michigan’s driver responsibility law faces criticism,” Rockford Republican Rep. Tom Pearce said of the law, “has it done anything to impact safety in the state of Michigan as far as our roads? We’re not hearing that.” This was two years ago, when the heavily-criticized driver responsibility fees came under closer scrutiny and some lawmakers support eliminating them. But in the end, nothing came of this talk, and today driver responsibility fees are still a terrible burden to all drivers, especially the poor.

If the fees aren’t promoting safety and many Michigan drivers just can’t afford to pay them, then there’s only one reason they still exist – the state is reliant on revenue from them. Indeed, the state government rakes in $110 million from driver responsibility fees. And at a time when the state government is uncomfortably looking around for ways to afford its budget, it seems unlikely that Granholm will actually urge lawmakers to abolish them.

Rather than making a vague appeal to driver responsibility, it is the state government that needs to take responsibility for the consequences of this law. Cashing in on Michigan drivers’ misfortunes is inexcusable and perpetuates a cycle where those who are least able to pay end up with the most substantial debts. At a minimum, the fees for not having insurance should be scrapped. Drivers who can’t afford insurance will be even less likely to buy it if they have to pay an outrageous fine for not having had it in the first place. The state needs to end its financial dependence upon revenue from driver responsibility fees because they prey on the least-advantaged economic level of society. Driving in Michigan might never be perfect, but it shouldn’t come with such unfair costs.

Robert Soave is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at rsoave@umich.edu.

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