Making cents of Delaware’s traffic fines

DOVER — Some state lawmakers are frustrated with the long-standing practice of using speeding tickets to fund other areas, such as court security, volunteer ambulance companies and the state’s criminal database.

What may seem to be a simple traffic ticket that costs $20 or $25 is in fact several times that, particularly if the driver has prior offenses.

For a first-time violator, the cost is $1 per mph over the speed limit between 5 and 16, $2 per mph from 16 to 20 and $3 at 20 mph and up. This means someone who is driving, for example, 55 mph in a 40 mph zone and is a first-time speeding offender would be charged an additional $15, bringing the total to $35.

Still not too bad, though, right?

Wrong. There’s a lot more to come. The general and speeding parts just make up the base fine.

For example, what if the driver decides to contest the fine in court, and loses? Once you add in the court costs and all the funds traffic tickets help cover, the total comes to $134.50 for that particular offense. That’s a lot more than it might appear at first.

Court costs are set at $20 but get bumped to $35 if the offender opts to go before a judge. Funds largely unrelated to traffic violations receive dollars from speeding tickets, and while those may just be a few bucks each, add in all of them, and the cost of a ticket goes up.

If you’re not wearing your seat belt, that’s another $20 or so.

For repeat offenders, the original fine starts at $25, and the speed level costs start at $2 and go up to $4, making it more expensive.

The speeding fine goes to the state’s General Fund, while others go to the various funds, each of which supports various state initiatives and programs.

The general fine, the court cost and part of the Transportation Trust Fund fee can be suspended by a judge.

On June 30, right before the Legislature was to break for the year, Rep. James Johnson, D-New Castle, introduced a resolution to study traffic fines.

By creating a working group “to explore best practices and possible improvements to the process of imposing and collecting fines for minor traffic offenses,” it piggybacks with a bill that bars suspension of driver’s licenses in the event of unpaid speeding fines. The bill was signed into law earlier this month.

In the GOP weekly message last month, Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, addressed the issue of traffic fines.

“In addition to being misleading, it also has created a perverse incentive structure in our government,” he said.

“We’re at the point where we have many worthwhile programs that are funded exclusively by fees added to criminal violations. So we’re in a position where worthwhile government programs are dependent on our constituents and Delaware citizens violating the law.

“If these programs are worthwhile, and I think many of them are, they should be funded through our regular budget process.”

Many people living paycheck-to-paycheck are seriously impacted if they receive multiple speeding tickets, leading to hundreds of dollars in fines, he said.

With the newly signed law, however, their licenses will no longer be suspended.

“Too many well-intentioned people were seeing their driving privileges revoked while they were simply going to work, supporting their families and saving up whatever money they could to ultimately cover their fines,” prime sponsor Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, said in a statement two weeks ago.

“With the governor’s signature today, no longer are we asking these folks to choose between their livelihood and driving with a suspended license.”

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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