By The Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A driver’s chances of being hit by an uninsured motorist in Alabama may go down after Jan. 1.
That is when a new system will start cracking down on the 900,000 Alabama vehicles without insurance. The system will verify within a few seconds whether a motorist is abiding by the state’s law requiring liability insurance.
County license plate offices will verify insurance information when issuing or renewing car tags. Police will do it when they stop cars for traffic offenses. And the state Revenue Department will do random computer checks to find motorists who have dropped their insurance. Then it will contact the motorists, who must provide proof of insurance or risk getting their vehicle registration suspended.
Driving without insurance results in a fine of up to $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for a subsequent offense. It can also result in suspension of the vehicle’s registration. Reinstating it will cost $200 for the first violation and $400 for subsequent violations.
“That’s the teeth,” state Revenue Commissioner Julie Magee said.
The Alabama Legislature passed a law in 2000 to require motorists to carry liability insurance. The Insurance Research Council estimates that 22 percent of Alabama’s more than 4 million private vehicles don’t follow the law, which is the sixth-highest rate of any state.
Many of these motorists will buy insurance when it’s time to renew their tag and show their insurance card to officials issuing tags. Then they quit paying their monthly bills and let the insurance lapse, but they still have an insurance card to show police if they are stopped for an offense or get involved in an accident.
In 2011, the Legislature passed a law, sponsored by Republican Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur, to crack down on the violators. It resulted in the new system that will allow a police officer who runs information on a car tag to find out at the same time whether the car has insurance. Before stepping out of a patrol car to write a speeding ticket, the officer will also know whether to write a ticket for driving without insurance, Magee said.
The state Revenue Department has been testing the system in the Winston County probate judge’s office. Judge Sheila Moore said the public reaction has been overwhelmingly favorable because motorists who buy insurance want others to do it.
When the system shows that someone doesn’t have insurance, Moore and her staff explain how the cost of a ticket and the registration reinstatement are much more expensive than buying basic liability insurance. Most people leave, buy insurance and return in compliance with the law.
“We have not had anybody be ugly,” she said.
If motorists drop the insurance after one month, Magee is counting on her department’s random computer checks to find them and take action.
Limestone County License Commissioner Greg Tucker said the new system will help motorists who have insurance but don’t respond to letters the Revenue Department sends out randomly each month asking people to verify their insurance. Tucker said some people forget to respond or don’t take the letters seriously and wind up with their vehicle registrations suspended.
With the new system, the random checks will be done by computer rather than letter, he said.
Many states have insurance companies download customer information to a state database, which officials then use to check for insurance. Magee said Alabama is taking a cheaper approach through an Internet-based system that allows a tag official or police officer to enter information and get a response from an insurance company in two or three seconds.
Implementing the new system has cost about $150,000. Magee declined to estimate how much money could be brought in through tickets and suspensions, saying the goal is to crack down on uninsured motorists, not make money.
The goal is to reduce the number of uninsured motorists to less than 10 percent of all drivers, Magee said.
That would not only get Alabama off the council’s list of the 10 worst states when it comes to uninsured drivers, but also would be below the national average of 13.8 percent, said Patrick Schmid, director of research for the Insurance Research Council.