By on September 7, 2010

The NY Times reports on a growing phenomenon: the crash tax. Though ambulance fees have long been born by those who use their services, Police, Fire Departments and other first responders in 26 states are reportedly charging users for their services, and they’re generating quite a bit of debate in the process. In one instance, Mr Cary Feldman of Chicago Heights was in an accident that he didn’t cause, did not use any emergency services, and was still billed $200 for the dispatch of a fire engine to the scene of his wreck. The AAA’s take on such fees

Generally, we see that public safety services are a core government function that should be properly budgeted for with general taxes and not addressed by fees after the fact

On the other hand, charging those who cause accidents for emergency response costs helps keep taxes lower for safe drivers and provides an incentive against reckless driving. So are fees worth the occasional misapplication, or are they an unfair tax on victims?

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35 Comments on “Ask The Best And Brightest: Crash Tax?...”

  • avatar

    These are the unseen consequences of this kind of fee – hit and run accidents and unreported accidents.

    Who decides when a fire truck shows up to spray down an accident site? What are the determining factors behind paying a city employee earning $60,000 a year to sweep up and dispose of shattered plastic on the street? What are the conditions requiring the employment of a group of city employees to process accident reports, files, and collecting information that goes to various governmental agencies mandated to handle such information?

    What we see when a car strikes a barrier, doesn’t begin to cover what happens after. It doesn’t matter the amount of property damage or injuries. When a car simply stalls on an expressway, you begin amassing costs to move that car and allow traffic to flow once again.

    We have overly complicated what was a simple matter by allowing people once uninvolved in these matters to butt into them, transforming each simple incident into a costly exercise impacting each of us. We are reaching a point where it is better to run away, than to do the right thing, just as children do when their lives are not their own and forced to deal with helicopter parents.

    We are in an age of helicopter governments overseeing as many aspects of our lives as we have allowed them to pry into. This costs us all in more ways than simply financial.

  • avatar

    Maybe. But it would have to be charged only to those at fault and should be covered by insurance. It should also be flat fee. I used to work right next to a fire station that, well, didn’t really have all that much to do. For the smallest incident (cat in a tree, fainting bride, what have you) they would send out their whole force. I asked them about it once and the justification was that it was good for training and to keep skill levels up. If it’s not flat fee, there’s the risk of the same temptation income-strapped jurisdictions fall to with speed traps–milk it for all it’s worth. We’d have the guys who just used the ladder truck to get the cat out of the tree swinging by the accident scene to help lift the stretcher into the ambulance. Then the person in the accident would get billed for the ambulance and the ladder truck.

  • avatar

    This is a bad, bad idea. We had something very similar happen at one of our Distribution Centers. Guy had a heart attack. He refused to let us call an ambulance since he didn’t want to pay for it. Company policy (then) was not to pay and to allow the individual to make the decision.   Died waiting for a relative to come to drive him to a doctor.

  • avatar

    Yes, by all means, ‘bill’ the driver(s) that cause accidents.  In Johnson county, KS, drivers are already billed if they damage/knock over signage, light poles or anything else that belongs to the DOT.  Also bill drivers that fail to merge onto the right shoulder of the highway when their car ‘breaks down’.  The bill is for the wasted time drivers have to wait in a jam.  I think this would be an easier indicator for insurance companies to find the terrible drivers out there.  They would have solid proof of bad driving, not just certain age groups and type of cars driven.  I guess in the end I just want lower rates because I am accident and ticket free since I received my license (1999).

  • avatar

    Nice to hear at least that AAA are putting the boot in to this insane practice (albeit subtly).
    Seriously? “Point of use” charging for core emergency services? That’s allowed? Sometimes America baffles me.

  • avatar

    Complicated question.
    Maybe let the courts decide?
    Scenario;  happened locally.
    Repeat drunk driver in his 40s.  A loser. A hillbilly. White trash.  Scum. Worthless to self and others from what history I read of him.
    Maybe just a product of his environment but, heck, even a one-cell amoeba has been shown to have the ability to learn but not that one-brain-cell possessing human idiot.
    After a 10 year (supposed) driving privilege hiatus due to repeated drunk and impaired driving conditions the mental midget got his driving license back (mistake one).
    Mistake two: rush out and buy a used Camaro with the largest engine available.
    Undoubtedly it had the least efficient muffler, if any, that could be slapped under the car.
    Error three: grab two friends, drive late at night after and while drinking numerous beers, speed at rate way too  fast for conditions down one of the city’s busiest streets, dodging in and out of traffic.
    Boo boo four, while moving a very high rates impact very sturdy wooden utility pole stoutly embedded in the concrete sidewalk and down into the clutching planet below.
    Car explodes, implodes, multi-plodes into numerous fragments; causing life processes within those inside the car to cease.
    Huge traffic tie-up and much time and expense for authorities to investigate (and hopefully to exchange ample high-fives as another threat to society does the world a favor and takes himself and two fellow idiots to a well-deserved fate.
    Luckily, in this incident, no other vehicles involved, no innocent lives taken.  Friends of brain-dead idiot driver were aware of his failings due to past experiences with the infant in an adult’s body.
    That incident I can fathom billing the idiot’s estate, if there IS any, as much as possible for expenses incurred.
    Much depends upon the scenario, I suppose.
    A form of “stoopid tax” that, if existed, MAY, POSSIBLY, compel, prod, nip at the mind of some of the scurrying herd to actually THINK and consider the financial penalty possible if their on-road stupidity causes public expense.
    And that’s all I got to say about this box of chocolates.

  • avatar

    Where I live this this would not lead to lower taxes.  It would lead to more taxes (because that’s what governments always do) and now fees on top of it.  Most volunteer fire companies that I’ve seen would send multiple trucks to any event they could just to ensure their statistics stay artificially propped up.  That’s why it’s common to see both ambulance companies and volunteer fire companies show up.  Recently a person in a house near me had some sort of problem.  The ambulance came to put him on a stretcher.  At least 3 fire trucks, and several rescue vehicles also showed.

  • avatar

    Yeah, what did we expect from the good salaries and gold plated benefit plans that we pay to public emergency workers, for them to actually serve and protect the public? Are you kidding?

    The only thing they serve is themselves and the thing they protect is their pensions. Remember, when there’s a budget crunch, the cops and firemen and EMT workers and their unions and corrupt bosses are the first to start scaring the public about increased crime, poorer response time, etc. etc.
    In the current recession, government workers have thrived while millions in the private sector have lost their jobs. Where’s the sense of shared sacrifice?
    Now they want us to pay them extra for doing their job, and as Mr. Feldman discovered, they’re bureaucrats with authority so he’s got to pay up whether or not he needed, asked for, or even used their service. That’s an important point, they are charging someone who didn’t use any of their services. What’s next, a bill from the fire department when your neighbor had a fire?
    All of this is already paid for in taxes. To those that find no problem with this, what’s the difference between sending a bill or demanding payment upfront before they will provide the emergency services? Well gee, Mr. Storeowner, we’d like to protect you against criminals but you’re gonna have to pay us first. Are these government employees or members of the Soprano family?
    On the other hand, charging those who cause accidents for emergency response costs helps keep taxes lower for safe drivers and provides an incentive against reckless driving.
    Where is the evidence that any municipalities or their fire, police and EMT services ever try to keep taxes low? It’s all about revenue. I was once injured in a car/bicycle accident. My ex MIL said that if I sued, I’d be driving up everybody’s insurance costs. That’s not really the case. Insurance costs are set actuarially based on the statistics of accidents. I just happened to be one of the people in an accident.

    Note that the citys, cops and firemen and their labor unions don’t say that they want to charge those responsible, they want to charge those who use their “services”. So if you get run down crossing the street by a hit-and-run, they’ll send you a bill.
    I wonder, well not really, if they’ll also bill law enforcement officers and their departments when they themselves require emergency assistance. Oh, right, those costs are already paid by taxpayers.

    A couple of weeks ago I noticed that there were about a half dozen police cars at the site of an accident where a couple of main roads intersect on a freeway overpass. When I got closer I realized why there were so many cop cars – one of the cars in the accident was a police cruiser. It looked like someone in a brand new Camaro with the right of way hit a cop car making a left turn where only cop cars can make a left turn.
    When it’s one of their own, they send out all sorts of emergency aid without a second’s thought for the cost. When it’s a member of the public, they send you a bill, and likely give  you a ticket too.

    • 0 avatar

      Well gee, Mr. Storeowner, we’d like to protect you against criminals but you’re gonna have to pay us first. Are these government employees or members of the Soprano family?

      This is exactly how a private fire-prevention system would work**.  It’s certainly how private ambulances work in other countries.  In fact, let’s look up the history of private military forces (the word is “mercenary”, by the way) and see how well they work out.

      What you’re seeing here how things will go if we continue to nickel-and-dime social services into a state of permanent inadequacy, and it’s a direct result of the starvation and balkanization of the tax system that started forty years ago.  It’s all very libertarian: starve social services of funding, force them to adopt back-handed funding methods like these that actually cost more to administer and piss people off, then claim how the public option never works without acknowledging their hand in making it inadequate.

      Somehow, these services seem to work much better for more people in other parts of the world; countries where they’re properly funded and don’t have to resort to pick-pocket funding.  So does the American military, which doesn’t have to deal with the nickel-and-dime, the-private-sector-can-do-it-better attitude that’s killing infrastructure.

      Of course, getting these levels of service would mean taxing the upper classes as they were taxed back when all this stuff worked well.  Can’t have that.

      ** except that private fire fighters would probably commit arson to ensure a yearly profit growth

    • 0 avatar

      As someone who works in state government, all I can say is that the idea that we are “nickel-and-diming” social services, or somehow starving them of funds, is ludicrous. What’s really happening is that an increasing people are more than happy to take full advantage of services paid for by someone else. In a heterogenous, diverse society, this is what ultimately happens.

      Lavish social programs only work in societies that are relatively homogenous. In these societies, there is an unwritten social contract and unspoken pressure to prevent the abuse of the system. Even the relatively homogenous, compact European countries are experiencing more problems with their social service programs as immigration increases the number of people who have no problems with living off the sweat of others.

    • 0 avatar

      We are not nickel and diming government. We may, may, be diverting money from essential services to whatever gets the elected officials more votes or offers them a way to increase their power through increased regulation and/or size of government. California, our very own Greece, has, IIRC, 280 regulatory agencies, a large number of which duplicate federal functions. LA has three new schools that in aggregate cost more than 1 billion dollars. But hey, it doesn’t come out of the budget, it’s bonded construction! (I went to a great college having spent 2/3rds of my public schooling in one story cinder block schools. Ditto for my sibs including a brother who graduated McGill with a science degree).
      Vote no on incumbency where ever you find it. Ask your reps what part of government they are going to lay off to bring spending back in line with revenue. I’m sure you’ll get a straight answer. This isn’t a fight that will be won in a few election cycles.

    • 0 avatar

      Psarhjinian,  you mean like these guys?

    • 0 avatar

      Nickles and dimes on funding?
      The problem is Grant and Franklin on spending.
      Like so many others, my county is in the midst of a “budget crisis”.  Closing parks and libraries, neglecting roads, new or higher fees everywhere you look, dire threats from the teachers’ union, etc.  And dozens of new speed and red light cameras going up, to keep it vaguely auto related.
      What they call a “crisis” amounts to needing to keep spending at the low level of only 20% higher than it was just 5 years ago, which was then adequate to provide every necessary service and run a surplus besides.  Spending is up 60% in 10 years.  Which they budgeted so poorly that they can’t afford snow removal this year.  Apparently that would have taken a 61% increase.
      If you ran the car business like that a 2011 Ford Explorer XLT would start at $49,000 and extra cost options would include windshield wipers and a horn.

    • 0 avatar

      What they call a “crisis” amounts to needing to keep spending at the low level of only 20% higher than it was just 5 years ago, which was then adequate to provide every necessary service and run a surplus besides

      Well, you know, blow a few billion on a couple of wars and a bunch of tax breaks and then, come the next recession, you end up wholly unprepared and with no surplus to shield you when things go really south.

      I’ve seen exactly one government in the G8 do this correctly (though it’s possible the post-Berlin Wall Germans have managed the same) and that’s the Federal Liberals under Chretien and Martin in Canada, who a) managed to pay down the debt and b) maintain a surplus while c) not falling into the trap of cutting taxes for the sake of image and d) keeping service levels reasonable.  Had the Conservatives done the same, rather than blow their ideological wad on tax cuts before the recession, Canada would be in absolutely rocking shape.**

      But most governments don’t do this.  Many left-wing ones won’t address systemic tax evasion or promote sustainable growth; most right-wing ones will starve government in good times, cripple non-military services and buy votes (or indulge in ideological masturbation) via tax cuts.  Both paths will lead to ruin come the next recession.

      Many people talk about running government like a business, but those same people get really snitty about government saving money during good times, despite how good businesses can and do have cash piles to sustain themselves in low-growth periods.  No one, it seems, wants to be progressive, and that includes the voters who demand their slice of the pie now.

      Well, guess what, the don’t live paycheck to paycheck maxim applies to government as well.  Just as people shouldn’t spend money on a new car in good times unless they’re absolutely sure they can afford it, government shouldn’t be spending money on tax breaks unless they’re really sure they can stand the revenue loss.  Tax cuts aren’t automatic revenue generators any more; and it’s questionable as to whether they ever were, or if we were just deluded by the extended post-war boom.

      ** Tax cuts during a recession are not a bad idea.  Tax cuts the year before a recession when every reputable economist is issuing warnings about the bottom falling out of the market was deeply stupid.

    • 0 avatar

      psar, at a national level I largely agree with you.
      At the local level that’s crumbling this year because they can’t run unlimited short term deficits to delay the pain, none of that is true.  My state and county government didn’t spend a penny on the war.  The closest we came to a tax cut was a 0.1% – not 1%, 0.1% – top bracket cut in 2003 and minor property rate cuts which didn’t come close to keeping up with skyrocketing bubble appraisals.  In 2007 we got the largest tax hike in state history.  And they didn’t put a dime of it away for the disaster on the horizon, they promised all of it and more next year besides to the usual bottomless pits.
      It’s why fortune 500 companies aren’t run 2 years at a time by popularity contests among the uninvested.

    • 0 avatar

      Aspade has a point here.  The housing bubble collapse absolutely gutted many municipalities of their operating income.  Here houses that were selling for $350,000 in 2006 are now selling for $150,000.  There is no state income tax, and most counties are vehemently against adding a county sales tax on top of the state sales tax, so the only real source of income communities have are property taxes.
      When the property suddenly nosedives in value, so do the tax revenues, not too mention all of the people that aren’t paying their mortgages, much less their taxes.  Construction and related businesses were also the big economy drivers here and many other areas of the country.  Now that there is no boom, there is no new construction, and yet another tax base is loss as builders and construction companies fold instead of raking in record profits.
      On top of all of that, when you add in local factors, such as the decreased tourism revenue due to people across the country having less money to blow on vacation, and an abnormally cold winter that killed off a lot of game fish and has led to a ban on certain types of sportfishing until stocks replenish, and you have a recipe for disaster.
      Now, I don’t think the answer is for the Police or Fire Department to charge for their services – the government needs to find other places to cut the fat to pay for key services.  However, it isn’t just out of control spending to blame for the current budget woes.

    • 0 avatar

      Put me in the camp that says charging fees for these services is wrong. Yes, governments are in financial trouble. But the governments have plenty of money. The problem is, they spend too much.
      The waste that goes on never ceases to amaze me. Some of the ones that caught my eye lately:
      — The Justice Department indicted Roger Clemens for perjury for telling a Congressional committee that he did not take steroids or human growth hormone. That prosecution will easily cost the taxpayer millions of dollars. If Clemens is convicted, they will have to pay to put him in jail.
      — In bankrupt California, the state kicks in thousands of dollars to those who buy a Tesla Roadster.
      — The Environmental Protection Agency spends millions on designing a new fuel efficiency sticker for cars.
      — The Federal Trade Commission issues and enforces guidelines that says reviewers on iTunes, Amazon and presumably TTAC have to disclose any financial consideration given the reviewer. The first company caught having its employees write favorable reviews for its products was forced, as its only punishment, to have the employees delete the reviews.
      Yes, the government does provide a lot of essential services, many of which I and my family enjoy. But the government is like someone who goes into debt so they can eat at the finest restaurants and drink the best wines. Then complains when the bill comes due.
      The answer is simple. Cook something to eat at home and drink water. If that is all you can afford. Live with it.

  • avatar

    There’s a part of me that loves the idea of penalizing the idiots that cause accidents. That’s the same part that naively thinks that everyone can learn from their mistakes. It would be even better if we could figure out how to implement a means to compensate those of us inconvenienced by the mess resulting from idiot behavior. Sadly, that’s just not going to happen.

    As it stands, it’s just one more bad idea brought on by the “user fees are better than taxes” mentality that has inevitably arisen as a a result of the 30-Years War Against Taxes (TM).

  • avatar

    The real problem as I see it is that they’re billing you for something you didn’t request. The police and fire department aren’t so bad – having them respond isn’t a bad idea in any moderately serious accident, if just to direct traffic.

    But if that’s ok, where does it end? Why not send (and bill for) animal control to every accident in case there’s a ferocious dog in the car? You might also have hit a hydrant or utility pole. Better dispatch (and bill for) sending DPW to every accident. You probably also have some parts of your car spread around so streets and sanitation better stop by (and bill). But isn’t that car full of gas? Could be blood, too. Possible HAZMATs! Make that a specialized clean up crew, not the dude’n’a’broom. Boy what a fireworks display we’ll have this year! Thank you! Come again!

    Great. Now tapping a guardrail on an icy street (thank you so much, “good samaritan,” for calling 911 for a very minor, no injury, one car fender bender) costs thousands of dollars in arbitrarily-set municipal fees. Once this becomes common, you can be sure your insurance renewal will exclude coverage for it on the “list of policy changes” insert that comes with your bill.

    So yeah. Put me down for against.

  • avatar

    This is an extension of the revenue raising ideas such as red light cameras. Emergency responders shouldn’t be on commission. But I wouldn’t mind if there was a chance to recover expenses at a criminal trial arising out of egregious behavior, say, for example, that guy who launched his Camaro into the bridge abutment in Ohio a while back. Filtering the opportunity through a criminal trial pretty much limits this option.
    Just for fun, read a few of the accounts of EMTs – Rescuing Providence and A Day in the Life of an Ambulance Driver, for example – to understand the abuses that happen in non-accident situations. People use the ammalance as a taxi to get to the ER and pick up a few aspirins. The two bloggers are in very different situations – urban versus rural, but both have the same gripes.

  • avatar

    I disagree that this helps keep taxes lower in any way shape or form. This is a tax increase, plain as the nose on my face. And guess what? It is a tax increase on you, even if you personally never have to pay a dime for the services in your whole life–seriously.
    Let’s consider the concept of insurance- the security of knowing that some financial aspects of unexpected occurrences are already covered has actual value on the free market, even if you never use the service. Without that exact concept there would be no insurance of any kind, whatsoever. So we agree, then, that security against unexpected financial harm has value- real actual monetary value- regardless of whether unexpected events ever come to pass. If you disagree then please cancel every form of insurance of every kind that you own. Citizens of these municipalities are having that security taken away without an associated reduction of taxation. Therefore, they are paying the same amount of money for less product- and that’s a tax increase, y’all. And in general, tax increases don’t really help much with the goal of keeping taxes lower.

  • avatar

    We pay taxes to support police and fire – this is just double billing and it’s evil.
    EMT and hospital however – that’s billable, in my opinion.

  • avatar
    Rick Korallus

    No surprise that such a “taxation” would occur in Illinois!  Local GOP is wasting time and resources thinking of and broadcasting nick names for Illinois, such as Taxistan, Madiganistan, and The People’s Republic of Illinois.

    • 0 avatar
      Chicago Dude

      This is mostly (exclusively?) happening in the south suburbs of Chicago, which is slowly backsliding as everyone with money moves elsewhere and poorer people move in.
      It’s a last-ditch effort to avoid cutting services, although many of the cities doing this are doing so in retaliation to a nearby city that implemented the fees only on non-residents.

  • avatar

    This isn’t an additional tax.  Crash response isn’t free, somebody already pays for it.  And that somebody is the same productive class that already pays for everything else.

    Anything to make the fertile and irresponsible pay a little of their own way for a change is a good thing in my book.

    • 0 avatar

      An “additional tax?” Maybe not, but it is a tax increase. If your favorite cereal came with 2 ounces less per box next week for the same price- you would call that an increase in the cost of cereal. General Mills could claim that it wasn’t an “additional cost” on the box of cereal because the same amount of money changed hands, but that would be disingenuous hogwash. Same deal. You were taxed X dollars for a certain set of services yesterday- today you pay the same X dollars in taxation for a new smaller serving of services. That’s a tax increase. I’m not saying it isn’t justified or that your support of it is wrong- not saying that for a moment. Heck, it could be the smartest and greatest idea ever- still a tax increase.

    • 0 avatar

      In a perfect world of spherical cows on frictionless fields, a program that directly pays for (a little bit of) itself would reduce the tax supported bottom line a like amount.
      You are wholly correct that in the squeeze-em-harder world we’ve got, any general funds freed up will be directed to another of their insatiable mouths instead.
      I’m still all for it.  It isn’t additional spending and it isn’t a blatant subsidy.

    • 0 avatar

      aspade, I agree with you in theory, but this is the cost of business in a decent society.  We don’t let people bleed in the streets.  This is wrong.

  • avatar

    No,no, no, no, no! They gauge public opinion by floating these trial baloons. Same as a “user” or “fuel” tax. No. we already pay it. Rescue equipment is funded already and is also used as a scam. Ever wonder why a scratched bumper involves not only an officer but a freakin fire truck? Because every call it goes to no matter how ridiculous is logged for the next budget. Oh, ladder 17 answered 835 calls last year! We need $900,000 for a new one. Shame only 10 of those calls were fires.

  • avatar

    This leaves me wondering again what do our taxes pay for other than fancy city halls and expense accounts for our public officials?   We have to pay extra for garbage pick up, water, sewage, school supplies, etc.   Where I am they have tiered response where police, fire and ambulance all show up to a fender bender, why?  This is just another money grab by our cities so they can buy more votes from those who contribute little or nothing to our cities coffers.   I live on a rural road and our neighbourhood had to threaten not to pay our property taxes before they would fix our road.

  • avatar

    I don’t like it and I feel more reason to believe in working towards being a more fair and balanced person.

  • avatar

    Providing emergency services is the cost of a democracy.  This is a nickel and dime exercise and it ought to be slapped about the face and neck.

  • avatar
    M 1

    “We already pay for it,” is perhaps the best argument (made above, many times). But another point I’d like to add is that often these services “over-respond”… I’ve seen minor accidents with six or seven police cars sitting around. There is a sickly old man a few blocks away who has a serious medical emergency every 10 or 12 days, and they send three fire engines to his place, every time. We all know there isn’t a fire, and he certainly isn’t headed to the hospital in a ladder truck. Like so many other areas of life, I don’t trust the government to get this right.

  • avatar
    Rick Korallus

    Charging the people for causing accidents will encourage more hit and runs.  Someone posted that there is a tax crunch due to house values dropping.  Here in the People’s Republic of Illinois, my property taxes keep going up despite losing more than one third of the value! The governor wants to double our state income tax, all the while giving raises to his staff during a recession! 

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