More than a dozen Texas cities have enacted ordinances allowing police officers to ticket uninsured motorists and tow their vehicles, the Insurance Council of Texas reported. The policy has begun to spread rapidly as city officials and their constituents express frustration over the cost and consequences of having an accident with an uninsured motorist.
In 1997, the Commerce Police Department in northeast Texas became the first law enforcement agency in the state to begin towing the cars and trucks of uninsured drivers. Commerce was taken to court on the grounds of taking property without due process of law. The ordinance was upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Police in Desoto, a suburb of Dallas, adopted their own departmental policy two years later and the word quickly hit the streets.
“In Desoto, it’s well known,” stated Desoto Assistant Police Chief Carl Smith. “If you’re uninsured and you get stopped, your car is going to the pound.”
“It was a liability issue for us,” Smith said. “Our officers would come into contact with them, know they were uninsured and it was a conscientious decision on our part not to let them go down the road uninsured.”
Desoto police have issued nearly 11,000 citations for failure to maintain financial responsibility since their ordinance took effect Jan. 1, 2001. The vehicle of an uninsured driver can be towed from the scene of an accident or a traffic stop. Thousands of vehicles have been towed.
“It is a lot of cheaper to pay $50 a month for an insurance policy, rather than deal with a $400 fine and have to get their car out of the pound,” Smith said. “We see it as an expensive proposition not to have insurance.”
Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the Insurance Council of Texas, praised Texas cities that have implemented the ordinances and he urged safeguards.
“First of all the cities are upholding state law, but they have also recognized the pain and expense uninsured drivers are causing other motorists,” said Hanna. “We hope that each city will implement these programs in a uniform and objective manner, and that they work to ensure that consumers are protected against excessive towing and storage fees.”
Lawmakers began requiring drivers to show financial responsibility back on Jan. 1, 1951. Drivers were required to have minimum coverage of $10,000 per injured person, up to a total of $20,000 for everyone hurt in an accident and $5,000 for property damage or 10/20/5.
Auto liability insurance became mandatory in 1981.
In 1984, drivers were required to keep an auto insurance policy form or certificate in their vehicle and the minimum amount of liability insurance was increased to 20/40/15 where it stands today.
Hanna said beginning Jan. 1, 2007, law enforcement officers will have another tool they can use to easily identify uninsured drivers.
“During the last legislative session lawmakers directed four state agencies to set up a state auto insurance verification system,” Hanna said. “This program will enable every law enforcement officer to look at an automobile’s license plate or drivers’ license and determine whether the vehicle owner has mandatory liability insurance.
The Texas Department of Insurance is working with the Texas Department of Transportation, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Information Resources to implement this program. Thus far, a vendor has not been selected to get the program up and running.
Whatever company is chosen will have the responsibility of obtaining data from every insurance company offering auto insurance in Texas, keeping it accurate and current and making sure the information reaches law enforcement agencies statewide.
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