“We’re the ones taking the brunt for everything,” said Jachens, 21, a student at California State University, Sacramento. “It’s outrageous.”

learned of California’s soaring traffic penalties when he got slapped for a red-light violation.Ticketed drivers have been squeezed hard during the budget crisis, perhaps because few complain until they get fined – then it’s too late.

“We’re the ones taking the brunt for everything,” said Jachens, 21, a student at California State University, Sacramento. “It’s outrageous.”

Jachens was nabbed by a red-light camera for not making a complete stop at the intersection of Watt Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard. Three years ago, the offense would have cost Jachens $371.

Now it’s $470.

With unemployment soaring and median income foundering, California’s rising traffic fines stand out. Lawmakers generally have not increased base fines, but they have raised total penalties for each ticket the past three years by expanding or tacking on assessments:

• $20 for court security.

• $35 for court construction or renovation, plus an “immediate and critical needs” fee of $2 for every $10 of base fine.

• $4 to bolster emergency medical air transport services.

• $2 for every $10 of base fine to assist crime labs in processing DNA samples.

Jachens plans to attend traffic school, for which state-approved fees have doubled to $49 over the past three years. He also must pay a $7 county charge and tuition for the course itself, perhaps $25, lifting the total tab for attendance above $80.

Jachens’ bottom line to clear his red-light camera ticket? More than $550.

“It’s an entire paycheck for someone like me,” Jachens said.

Another fee proposed

Perhaps the college student should be thankful that no mechanical defects were spotted on his 15-year-old car: The fee for correcting violations has more than doubled – from $10 to $25 – since 2008.Pick a traffic offense, any moving violation, and the trend is the same.

Running a stop sign or driving 15 mph or less above the speed limit? The fine has jumped from $161 to $236. Ignoring a school crossing guard? From $201 to $280. Parking illegally in a disabled space? From $881 to $1,043.

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Penalties can vary slightly from county to county, but the state’s court system generally sets the standard by adopting an annual bail schedule.

New legislation by Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, would raise traffic penalties another $3 to bolster a fund for researching spinal cord injuries.

Even idle vehicles have been affected: Lawmakers have imposed $6 in state fees on parking tickets the past three years.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said increasing traffic penalties has been “one of the patches that we’ve relied upon to avoid deeper cuts” to key state programs. Unlike taxes and many fees, the Legislature can increase traffic penalties by a simple majority vote.

“It’s not the way to sustain important public investments,” he said. “At some point, it’s like getting blood out of a turnip. You can only squeeze so hard.”

Some call fees a tax

Hoping to bolster revenue, Sacramento and a growing number of other cities are turning to drivers with a different kind of assessment: Billing out-of-towners hundreds of dollars for fire personnel to respond to crash scenes.Paul Lewis, an associate professor of political science at Arizona State University, said that targeting motorists tends to “alienate fewer people” than a broad tax increase, but “you tick them off a lot more” by singling out one group.

Lew Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee, said increasing traffic penalties amounts to “a tax by another name.”

“(They) should solely be for the purpose of making sure that citizens abide by the law,” Uhler said.

Wieckowski countered that it makes sense to subsidize spinal cord research by raising traffic penalties because statistics show that about half of all spinal cord injury cases stem from vehicle crashes. “I see a clear nexus,” he said.

Besides freeing state funds for other vital needs, Wieckowski said, “We’re trying to adjust people’s behavior.”

California does not keep statistics on whether higher penalties have led to more citations, more delinquent tickets, or whether enough motorists are aware of and sufficiently care about the increases to alter bad driving.

In a national study of one traffic law, mandatory seat belts, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that raising penalties by amounts between $5 and $25 increased compliance by three to four percentage points. States’ penalties for a seat belt ticket averaged $49 in 2008, the study found. California charged $99 that year; the penalty has risen to $166.

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