Just passing through? Drive safe, or pay up
Because the stretch of Interstate 71/75 that runs through Erlanger, Ky., on the main corridor from Michigan to Florida is one of the busiest in the country, the city’s fire department has to respond to hundreds of accidents on the highway each year, most of which involve drivers who are just passing through. “Our citizens are paying. It’s their tax dollars that are putting the fire truck on the expressway,” says Fire Chief Tim Koenig. “Erlanger gets nothing from the expressway except headaches and a great deal of cost.” So, in January, the city became one of many across the nation that charge fees for emergency service to the insurance companies of out-of-town drivers who cause accidents.
Highway traffic accidents can be very taxing for Erlanger’s department of less than 80 firefighters, as each accident can take from 30 minutes to two hours to clear, depending on its severity. On average, each call costs the department between $500 and $700.
Koenig learned about charging fees to out-of-state drivers nearly four years ago at a local fire chiefs meeting, but city officials began considering the idea seriously six months ago. “As time’s gone on and budgets have gotten tighter and tighter in trying to maintain services to the citizens who are truly paying for the fire trucks on the expressway and who don’t have them available to them, I decided it was something we ought to look into,” Koenig says.
The 36-officer Erlanger Police Department responds to 80 accidents a month, and 82 percent involve non-residents, says Chief Marc Fields. Each response costs, on average, $50 for the vehicle and $7 for every 15 minutes of the officer’s time, with each accident taking about 30 minutes to clear.
Erlanger has contracted with Dayton, Ohio-based Cost Recovery Corp., to bill and collect money from the insurance companies. The city could receive its first payment in 60 to 90 days, Koenig says.
Ocala, Fla., also implemented similar fees in January. “We average between 4,000 to 4,500 traffic crashes a year, and 70 percent of those accidents we investigate — about 3,300 a year — involve non-city residents,” Deputy Police Chief Greg Graham says.
Because responding to accidents involves not only officers, but also dispatchers and other support personnel, the department spends about $200 to send a patrol car to an average accident call, which takes about an hour to clear, Graham says.
Municipalities in 18 states have implemented similar fees, says Jeff Brewer, spokesman for the Des Plaines, Ill.-based Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a trade group for property insurance companies. Brewer says the vendors that collect fees are spreading the idea, prompting more cities to consider it as a way to ease tightened budgets. “Over the last few years, we’ve seen [an] increase in the number of cities that have either implemented or are considering the fees,” he says.
Three states — Missouri, Pennsylvania and Indiana — have passed laws prohibiting the fees, and the Tennessee legislature has considered banning the fees. Similar legislation proposed in the Florida Senate was withdrawn on March 20.
While most city officials are loathe to raise taxes, they may view the fees — because they are charged to insurance companies and not drivers — as a way to avoid placing the burden directly on consumers, Brewer says. However, he says it creates an “indirect tax.” “If many cities impose these kinds of fees, insurance rates will go up,” he says. “We think if cities are in that position, we don’t think this is a good public policy approach to solving that problem.”