How Police Catch Uninsured Drivers

Posted September 25th, 2017 by Jason Metz

Auto liability insurance is required in most states. In addition, twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have mandatory requirements for uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage. According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), the percentage of uninsured drivers nationwide was 12.6 percent in 2012, the latest year this information is available. The III states that the public generally supports compulsory auto insurance and wants these laws enforced.

The III further states, “laws in most states have proven ineffective in reducing the number of drivers who are uninsured. There are many reasons for this. Some drivers cannot afford insurance and some drivers with surcharges for accidents or serious traffic violations do not want to pay the high premiums that result from a poor driving record. With the estimated percentage of uninsured drivers in the United States close to 13 percent, it is costly to track down violators of compulsory insurance laws.”

More: Uninsured motorist insurance

Although it is costly, and many Americans are uninsured, this does not mean that law enforcement turns a blind eye. In fact, recent developments in technology and legislation have helped facilitate the effort. The III cites two types of verification systems, “one type, which relies on databases, is in use in states where insurer verification laws mandate that all insurance companies in a state submit the entire list of their policyholders to an outside state agency, which matches them to motor vehicle registrations. One type of database system is a transactional database in which insurers identify new business, cancellations and non-renewals. Some states have passed laws to create online verification systems (OLVs) which provide real-time information on a motorist’s insurance status.”

An interesting case study is TexasSure, described as a “vehicle insurance verification program that came about when Texas Legislature directed the Texas Department of Insurance, Public Safety, Motor Vehicles, and Information Resources to develop a system to reduce the number of uninsured motorists. Working together, the agencies have compiled a database that connects every registered vehicle in the state by its license plate, vehicle identification number, and liability insurance policy. That means that law enforcement officers and tax-assessor-collectors can immediately access the database and verify if you are driving without insurance.”

TexasSure began in 2008 and is funded by a portion of the $1 dollar fee that Texas drivers pay when they renew their vehicle registrations. The system is available to all law enforcement statewide. TexasSure states that when the program started in 2008, nearly 20 percent of Texas vehicles were uninsured, but as of August 31, 2016, that percentage has dropped down 13.61 percent.

In addition to databases, there are Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) cameras that allow police to run a car’s plate and determine whether or not a car is properly insured. Driving without insurance is generally not considered a primary offense, meaning driving without insurance cannot be the initial reason the police pull someone over, but once pulled over, an officer can run the plate and verify if the driver is insured.

The introduction of ALPR is relatively new, and its efficacy on uninsured driving is yet to be determined. According to a report published by U.S. Department of Justice in August 2012, “Law Enforcement Agencies throughout the United States are increasingly implementing ALPR systems. Larger agencies are more likely to have implemented ALPR than smaller agencies, most likely the result of the costs of technology and the relative sizes of the jurisdictions. The 2007 Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS) survey (the most current LEMA data available) indicates that as of September 30, 2007, nearly half (48%) of the largest law enforcement agencies (i.e., those with 1,001 or more sworn officers) were regularly using ALPR, as were nearly one-third (32%) of agencies with 500-1000 sworn officers. In contrast, none of the smallest agencies (i.e., those with fewer than 50 sworn officers) reported regularly using ALPR and only 9% of agencies with 51-100 officers were using it.”

Nationwide, the estimated percentage of uninsured drivers was 15.6 percent in 1992, 14.5 percent in 2002, and 12.6 percent in 2012 (the last year of this data). We don’t have updated statistics, and it may be too early to say how much of an impact ALPR has on uninsured drivers, but one can look towards Michigan for an illustration of ALPR’s results.

In September 2013, a “growing number” of Michigan police agencies began using ALPR.

“Between September 13, 2013 and March 25, 2014, State Troopers issued 8,664 citations to motorists who had no proof of insurance. By contrast, between September 13, 2014, and March 25, 2015, troopers issued 10,009 such citations…This is an increase of 1,345 citations; however, it should be noted there was also an increase of approximately 100 troopers from 2013 to 2014.”

A Bay County magistrate in Michigan commented that as a result, the sheer number of charges issued to those driving without insurance has significantly increased. “We used to arraign no-insurance here and there and now I’m just getting them in groups. Six to 10 people at walk-in arraignments are here for no-insurance. That just never used to happen.”

With ALPR use becoming more prominent, there are, of course, concerns about privacy. In Rhode Island, there has been recent legislation that would allow for “a network of cameras that would watch over Rhode Island highways and automatically fine uninsured drivers.”

According to the Providence Journal, “versions of the camera bill have been debated in state capitols across the country for years, but so far no state has gone ahead with such a system.” In Rhode Island, the proposed bill would allow for a 50-50 split of the fines collected between the state and the company it hires. Estimated proceeds to the state have been at $15 million.

The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed its concern, saying “License plate readers can serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose when they alert police location of a car associated with a criminal investigation. But such instances account for a tiny fraction of license plate scans, and too many police departments are storing millions of records about innocent drivers. Moreover, private companies are also using license plate readers and sharing information they collect with police with little or no oversight or privacy protections.”

A case filed by the Virginia ACLU in Fairfax County, VA “appears to be the first legal challenge in a nation to the varying lengths of time police retain the data recording when and where a vehicle is being photographed by a license plate reader.” The Virginia Supreme Court has agreed to hear the ACLU’s challenge.

As these technologies develop, we can expect its widespread use will be debated and challenged in courts. In the meantime, driving without insurance will remain illegal (except for New Hampshire). The manner of which police identify uninsured drivers may change over time, but its illegality will not. Driving without insurance can be costly from a legal standpoint in terms of fines, suspensions, and imprisonment but also from a financial standpoint.

If you’re an uninsured driver and responsible for an accident, the financial consequences could be life-changing. Your personal assets could be at risk. While insurance may be expensive, it’s cheaper than the alternative if you get caught or cause an accident. At the very least, we recommend having the minimal amount of liability auto insurance to protect your assets. It could save you a lot of money in the long run, as well as give you a peace of mind.