Times Columnist Absolutely Loses It Over “Crash Fees” in Sacramento

Who should pay for police and fire department responses to crahses? An L.A. Times politcal columnist thinks that everyone should. Photo:Mike Meadows/Associated Press via LAist

George Skelton, the Los Angeles Times’ columnist in the state Capital generally writes about politics and policy in the Governor’s office or the legislature.  However, in today’s edition he changed courses and went on a full-throated attack against the idea that the people who cause car crashes should repay the city for the cost of sending emergency services to the crash scene.  The vitriol in this column is really something to behold, when you consider that all Sacramento is doing is making the people who cause car crashes pay for the city’s response instead of forcing tax payers to pay for someone else’s negligence.

Before we respond to the column, it’s important to note that unlike the proposed law in New York City, Sacramento’s city law only applies to drivers if fault is determined.  In other words, nobody is going to have to pay for a crash if they’re rear-ended.  Also, the law only applies to drivers from out of town.  Locals can hit whoever they want without paying the city a dime for emergency response.

Skelton claims his piece is about protecting the little guy from fees when he’s wrongly fingered for causing a crash.  But, if you read the whole column, you can’t help but come away with the feeling that he doesn’t believe that reckless drivers should be held accountable for the havoc they cause.  There’s no claim that the law should only apply to drivers under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  No claim that there must be physical evidence of guilt before the fee is assessed to negligent drivers.  Nothing except a vicious condemnation of the idea that bad drivers who cause crashes should pay the municipality that has to deal with the physical, emotional, and structural destruction caused by their negligence.

Streetblog’s response to Skelton’s column can be found after the jump.  For the record, this is the first time he’s written about transportation in at least the last five years.

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-cap-crash-tax-20110214,0,4509434,full.column

Beware of Sacramento’s crash tax

Visitors to the state capital will soon be billed for the cost of dispatching city firefighters or paramedics to the scene of accidents if the out-of-towner is deemed at fault.

From Sacramento

Travel tip: if you’re thinking about driving to Sacramento, don’t. Cancel the hotel reservation. Skip the big convention.

Don’t drive to Sacramento.  Good idea.  Take the train.

If you’re merely planning to drive through, don’t linger. Better yet, chart a scenic detour that avoids the city.

Or the train.  Take the train.

If you’re flying here, don’t rent a car after landing. Call a cab or take a shuttle.

This is starting off like a Livable Streets column.  It goes downhill.

Our state capital is about to become inhospitable to out-of-town motorists.

Sacramento — River City, The City of Trees, Sacotomato — is the latest local entity in California to adopt the dreaded “crash tax.” More than 50 have imposed it as they struggle to make ends meet.

Starting in another 10 days or so, an out-of-towner who has the misfortune to get into an accident that prompts the dispatch of Sacramento city firefighters or paramedics will be billed for the service if the visitor is judged to be at fault. Insurance companies will decide who’s liable in a multi-car accident based on the accident report.

Let’s rephrase that paragraph a little and see if it changes the emphasis at all.

Starting in another ten days or so, an out-of-towner found to be negligent in a car crash that is so severe that it causes Sacramento to send firefighters or paramedics will be charged a portion of the total cost of the crash on city coffers after fault is determined.  Insurance companies will decide who’s liable in a multi-car crash based on the crash report.

But right off, this smells of potential hometown favoritism. The odds seem stacked against the out-of-towner. If the city can pick up extra bucks by blaming a non-resident, it’s human nature — and government nature — that it would.

An insurance company might pay. But if it didn’t, the motorist would be stuck.

“Typically, an auto policy doesn’t cover the cost of a fire department response to an accident,” says Sam Sorich, president of the Assn. of California Insurance Companies.

I just want to point out that it is in insurance companies’ best interested for “their” driver not to be at fault.  That being said, whenever Streetsblog or another source question the report of an officer, we receive complaints of being “anti-cop.”  Skelton just accused ALL POLICE of being biased.  Not just one in Sacramento, but all of them.

And even if the insurance company does fork out, if the crash tax scheme continues to catch fire, it’s a good bet auto premiums will be rising in California. “Insurance companies will have to account for the [payouts] in the rates they charge,” Sorich warns.

Personally, I don’t want insurance companies covering response to crashes, because that means they’ll raise rates across the board.  What is so hard about charging drivers for the damage they cause when they’re being negligent?

He adds, referring to the capital community: “We’re supposed to be welcoming people to come and talk to their legislators and see how their government works. But now we’re saying, ‘We may charge you.’ “

It’s too bad Sorich didn’t finish his sentence.  “We may charge you, IF YOU’RE FOUND NEGLIGENT IN CAUSING A CRASH SO SEVER IT CAUSES THE DISPATCH OF PARAMEDICS OR THE FIRE DEPARTMENT.”

“Double taxation,” asserts state Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark), who has introduced legislation to outlaw crash taxes.

Strickland notes that out-of-towners already pay local sales taxes — in restaurants, stores and auto dealerships. That should suffice, he asserts.

The conservative lawmaker also makes another point: Many motorists might just leave the accident scene rather than stick around and risk getting hit by the crash tax.

Sounds like a good reason to finally strengthen the state’s laughably weak “hit and run” laws.

It hasn’t been determined whether Strickland’s bill would outlaw only future enactments of the tax — which technically is a fee — or also void all current ordinances. That will depend on potential bill amendments and legal interpretations.

At least 10 states restrict local governments’ ability to charge so-called accident response fees. The fees are a relatively new trend in government revenue-raising and vary from entity to entity.

They’re like speed traps. But there are no warning signs.

They would be “like speed traps” if the government purposefully designed roads that are traditionally traveled by out-of-towners to cause crashes.  Also, so-called speed traps generate revenue.  This law charges unsafe drivers for a portion of the damage and inconvenience created by their negligence.

I called Carpinteria because that’s where I used to drive to the beach long ago. With the tax trap, I might not today. The city manager pleaded not guilty. It was the handiwork of the Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Protection District, he said.

The district fire chief, Mike Mingee, immediately corrected me about it being a crash tax. “We call it a fee for service,” he said.

In California, the vast majority of crash-taxing governments sock only non-residents, although a handful also hit local motorists who are at fault. Sacramento will exempt owners of local businesses.

The actual billing is contracted out to private operators, who grab a cut of the take. So they tend to be aggressive bill collectors.

Here are some of the predator communities you should be especially careful driving through, according to Strickland’s list: Carpinteria, Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Hemet, Oceanside, Petaluma, Redlands, Ripon, Roseville, San Bernardino, Stockton, Tracy, Woodland — and dozens more.

“Predator communities?”  Skelton is so removed from reality, that he’s making the villain the municipality that has to deal with carnage caused by out-of-town, negligent, drivers.  Not the drivers themselves.

The chief had a logical explanation for the fee: “We’re a small department that covers a large area of Highway101. A large percentage of auto accidents involve people just passing through. We’re trying to relieve the local tax burden and keep our heads above water.”

Good point, but it’s no justification for a screwy situation. The state should be funding accident response — fire safety — on the major highways, just as it does traffic enforcement. But the state doesn’t have enough money to buy a squirt gun.

So if a resident of Fresno gets drunk and crashes in to another car on The 101 in Carpinteria, Skelton now thinks that I should pay for it too.

Mingee added that the fee was imposed “in direct response to the state Legislature choosing to remove 8% of our [tax revenue] to balance the state budget in 2009.”

And he emphasized that the fee collector had been instructed only to bill insurance companies, not to pester motorists.

So, what was the point of bringing up Carpinteria again?

That won’t be the case in Sacramento, however. And unlike Carp, motorists here aren’t just passing through. Many thousands drive into town each day to work. Close to 500,000 live in the city (thankfully, I’m one). But nearly 600,000 more live elsewhere in the county, and they’re all potential victims of the crash tax, as well as people in bordering counties.

Hey, L.A. Times!  How about hiring local for your Sacramento column?  Also, all of those 600,000 people are in danger of being a victim of an actual crash.  That’s much worse.

“Offensive” and “plain dumb,” Yolo County Supervisor Mike McGown called the crash tax. He asserted it proved what his neighbors on the west bank of the Sacramento River had always suspected: that the capital city looked down its nose at them and believed “West Sac was only good for whorehouses and truck stops.”

Great PR.

I have no idea how to respond to this.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a homegrown former pro basketball star, has been standing firm behind the pending tax.

Here’s the fee schedule: $495 for a typical crash involving “scene stabilization,” $2,274 for a helicopter evacuation. Johnson estimates this will raise between $300,000 and $500,000 a year.

But not if out-of-towners boycott stores or cancel reservations.

…or stop crashing their cars.

Sacramento is a great place to live. But I wouldn’t want to visit.

Given this column, I’m hoping you don’t visit Los Angeles.  Or, if you do, that you don’t drive while you’re here.