The Public Policy

Water’s Hot

Virginia's automotive "abuser fees" get dumped, for the moment.

By 1.28.08

Send to Kindle

Sometimes, the frog leaps before he's cooked.

Remember the story about the frog and the pot of boiling water? So long as you raise the water temperature gradually, Mr. Frog doesn't notice the increasing temperature until it's too late too get away.

The analogy is used to convey, in easy-to-understand language, the process of "government creep." We don't go from freedom to tyranny overnight; statism sneaks up on us incrementally, one step at a time. Each step, by itself, doesn't seem all that bad; just another annoyance to deal with or avoid if you can.

But one day you find yourself living in a country that looks more like Orwell's 1984 than the place envisioned by the authors of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Government -- its laws, its minions, its petty harassments and endless rigmarole -- is an omnipresence that is inescapable.

Which brings us to the matter of Virginia's "abuser fees," the brainchild of Republican state lawmaker Dave Albo.

Albo, who just happened to be a big-time lawyer connected with a firm that specializes in defending traffic cases, pushed for and got a new law that went into effect last July. It imposed unprecedented fines, as high as $3,000 per incident. These fines were charged to motorists for traffic infractions, including routine speeding, on top of whatever fine the court levied for the infraction.

The justification given was that the fees would help fund transportation improvements, and of course, "safety," that well-worn bray that's still remarkably effective, despite the obvious cynicism with which it is deployed.

But Albo and his backers made a mistake. They went for broke, and all at once.

Not only were the fines outrageously high relative to the offenses; not only did they constitute a "double tap," where violators paid, in effect, two fines; but to add insult to injury they only applied to in-state drivers.

A Virginia motorist convicted of driving 80-something mph on a Virginia highway with a posted speed limit of 65 mph faced a "reckless driving" charge, a court fine of several hundred dollars, plus an "abuser fee" of more than $1,000. But an out-of-state driver caught doing exactly the same thing only got the court fine.

Seem fair to you?

VIRGINIANS FELT THE same way. Lawmakers got an earful of a different sort of abuse. Several delegates who voted for the fees were turned out in the recent elections. Not even seven months after Albo's law went into effect, it is on the verge of being repealed in toto.

So the "abuser fees" will go, but it may be only a temporary victory. Albo and his friends will realize, if they haven't already, that they overplayed their hand. Gradualism is the key.

Next time, the "abuser fees" will only apply to indefensible acts -- DWI, vehicular manslaughter resulting from gross negligence, etc. Then, the law will be expanded to the next-down category of offenses -- things not quite so bad but still hard to make excuses for.

Few will complain. It will become accepted practice. Other states will pass similar laws. There will be uniformity, and reciprocity.

A few years will pass. Then, someone will propose that the fines be applied to yet more offenses. "Public safety!" will be the cry. And just as seat belt laws went from no-argument laws requiring that small children be restrained to "primary enforcement" laws that empower police to pull adults over for failing to "buckle up," so, too, will "abuser fees" eventually encompass routine and purely technical infractions, such as simple speeding.

And we'll have come full circle.

There's just too much money at stake; too much potential control over the masses to be passed up for long.

To paraphrase Arnold: They'll be back. Count on it.

And next time, we will probably not notice the water's getting warm again; at least, not before it's too late to jump.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.