A minimum $300 fine is now in effect for uninsured Tennessee drivers

Eastbound Interstate 24 traffic snarls each weekday afternoon leaving downtown Chattanooga.

Getting caught without proof of auto insurance in Tennessee now costs three times more than it did at the beginning of the week.

A new state law that took effect Wednesday ups the minimum fee from $100 to $300 for not carrying proof of auto insurance. The higher fine is the first of three major changes to be rolled out over the next year as part of legislation adopted by Tennessee lawmakers this year to crack down on the estimated 660,000 uninsured motorists in the Volunteer State.

The new law also makes it a Class A misdemeanor - with punishments up to 11 months, 29 days in jail and/or up to $2,500 in fines - for knowingly providing false proof of insurance.

State Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, sponsored the Financial Responsibility Law, which passed in the spring. He said the aim is to make paying for auto insurance cheaper than driving without it.

"The hope is that folks will live within the boundaries of the law," he said. "It's cheaper to be legal rather than illegal."

According to the Insurance Information Institute, the average annual cost of carrying auto insurance in Tennessee in 2012 was around $630.

Lamberth said his legislation merely exists to better enforce the Tennessee Financial Responsibility Law of 1977, which already required motorists to carry auto insurance.

He estimates about one of every five Tennessee drivers doesn't have auto insurance. Lamberth said that proves that the old law failed on its own to get drivers insured.

photo Eastbound Interstate 24 traffic snarls each weekday afternoon leaving downtown Chattanooga.

"If we're going to have a law on the books, it should be enforced," said Lamberth. "This is really just the enforcement. That's what this bill does."

He said the 80 percent of Tennessee drivers who are insured unfairly pay the price for the ones who don't carry insurance and get into accidents.

Lamberth's bill will eventually - in addition to the new $300 minimum fine - also allow local law enforcement to tow a vehicle if its owner fails to produce proof of insurance. That provision goes into effect Jan. 1, 2016.

Meanwhile, the state is also paying a third-party vendor (with income generated from the new, upped $300 fines) to create an electronic insurance database, and will next year start requiring insurers to submit up-to-date information on Tennessee drivers.

With that information, law enforcement officers and county clerks can monitor who has insurance and who doesn't.

Starting July 1, 2016, county clerks will be required to refuse vehicle registration and tag renewal to drivers who don't have insurance.

Additionally, fines will be assessed against those drivers, and revocation of vehicle registration can happen if insurance isn't acquired.

Right now, county clerks don't ask for, or keep up with, auto insurance information.

"We're not supposed to ask," said Bill Knowles, Hamilton County Court Clerk. "We're not insurance people."

Currently, "it's not a crime to have a vehicle registered without insurance," he said.

Knowles has advised state officials on the creation of an electronic insurance database. He said "there'd be no way" to keep track of the information the state wants by simply requiring insurance proofs sent through the mail.

Knowles said that until the electronic database is up and running next summer, nothing will change at the county clerk level for residents registering or renewing the tags on a vehicle.

All the upcoming changes have attracted opposition, even among House Republicans.

State Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, says his Republican counterpart's bill places an additional financial burden on low-income Tennesseans, some of whom likely already have a hard time keeping up their auto insurance policies.

Dunn said legislative staff studied the impact of Lamberth's bill and concluded that around 400,000 of Tennessee's estimated 660,000 uninsured drivers can't afford an auto insurance policy, or can't afford to keep one up long-term.

"And I have problems with laws that tell people to do something that our own staff says they are financially unable to do," he said.

Even more troubling to Dunn is the provision in the new law that allows police, under their own discretion, to tow an offender's vehicle.

"Then they'll have a $300 fine. They'll have a towing fine. And since they don't have money, they won't be able to get their car out of the impound lot, and they'll be charged for each day it's there," said Dunn. "Pretty soon they'll lose their car."

Dunn said he also has a problem with making private insurance providers "agents of the state" by making them gather and share information on the new electronic database.

"Now they're going to be forced to tattle on you," he said.

But Lamberth heartily disagrees.

"Tripling the fine is simply making it cheaper to go ahead and get that minimum insurance," he said.

"I don't want folks getting fined," said Lamberth. "My hope is folks will just follow the law."

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.