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Uninsured driver crackdown tabled

To avoid ticketing errors, state looks for right fit for verification program
TERRENCE STUTZ
The Dallas Morning News

The state's planned crackdown on uninsured drivers – one of every five motorists on the road – is on the shelf until next year so officials can figure out how to avoid ticketing, or even arresting, motorists because of bad information.

The problem is how to manage the mountain of data matching 15 million drivers with their insurers.

Officials have scrapped nearly a dozen bids they received this year from information service companies wanting to administer the auto insurance verification program. New bids will be taken later this month.

"We weren't satisfied with what we got back, so we have asked for a second set of bids with greater detail than we requested before," said Ben Gonzales, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Insurance.

Despite the delay, Texas drivers will continue to pay a $1 fee in their license renewals to pay for the program.

The program is aimed at catching uninsured drivers by allowing police officers, state troopers, vehicle inspection stations and others to instantly verify whether a motorist has at least the minimum coverage required under state law. The verification would come through either a central database or a Web site set up in conjunction with the insurance industry.


'Do the right thing'

State Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, author of the uninsured motorist legislation, said he had hoped to see the program nearing implementation by now, but he doesn't want to see it launched until state officials are satisfied it will do what it's intended to do.

"While I'm frustrated it has not yet been implemented, it is more important to do the right thing than have a system that is cumbersome for legally insured drivers in our state," Mr. Staples said.

"Texas has an unacceptable level of uninsured motorists, and we still intend to crack down on those who are violating the law by not having insurance coverage. But it's going to take a little more time. I hope we can see a system in place as early as possible in 2007."

Mr. Staples and numerous others who passed the law in 2005 said one of the most frequent complaints they hear from constituents at town hall meetings is the large number of uninsured drivers in Texas and the extra cost they represent for the majority of drivers who buy insurance.

The insurance industry estimates that Texas drivers shell out nearly $900 million a year to protect themselves against those without coverage.

Although Texas has had a financial responsibility law requiring drivers to buy insurance for years, enforcement has been difficult even though proof of insurance must be furnished to get a license renewal or safety inspection. The minimum policy must contain liability coverage to pay for injuries and damage caused by the driver.

Many motorists skirt the law by using counterfeit proof-of-insurance cards or by obtaining a month's coverage of insurance to get an ID card, only to cancel the policy once they get their licenses renewed or their vehicles inspected.

Mr. Staples said he is encouraged by the growing number of cities – including several in North Texas – that have aggressively implemented local programs to penalize uninsured drivers. Among the cities with towing programs are Arlington, Dallas, DeSoto, Garland, Irving and Mesquite.

Those plans – which generally call for vehicles of uninsured drivers to be impounded if they're stopped on a traffic violation or involved in an accident – will get a boost once the state verification program is up and running.

The state program is being coordinated by the insurance department along with the departments of public safety and transportation. They are still studying how to best use the data to enforce the law. In some states, for example, uninsured drivers receive written notice from the state giving them a certain amount of time to buy coverage to avoid penalties.


Design disagreement

Officials have cited some differences over the design of the program between at least two of the state agencies. While the public safety department has favored a massive database to store all the information about drivers and their insurance carriers, the insurance department supports an Internet-based approach that would allow insurers to more easily update information on their policyholders.

Companies that bid for the contract will be allowed to incorporate either concept or both.

Carol Cates of the insurance department said Texas wants to avoid the mistakes that have plagued other states trying to combat the problem of uninsured motorists.

"In several states, a lot of people were incorrectly identified as having no insurance. We want to avoid that," she said. "That's one of the reasons we're giving bidders more time, so they can incorporate new technology that can be used to bring a top-rate system to Texas."

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