NASHVILLE - Uninsured Tennessee drivers beware: Starting Sunday, a new insurance verification system will allow police to check in real time whether you have vehicle coverage already mandated by state law.
The James Lee Atwood Jr. Act, named after a 30-year-old man killed in 2014 by an uninsured motorist, passed during Tennessee's 2015 legislative session, but it took until now to set up the online system.
"Tennessee already has a financial responsibility law that applies to Tennessee drivers," Revenue Commissioner David Gerregano said. "The goal of this new system is to efficiently and effectively check compliance in order to reduce the number of motorists who lack insurance or another form of financial responsibility."
An estimated 20.1 percent, or one in five, motorists on Tennessee roads don't have liability insurance - the sixth highest percentage in the U.S. - and as many as 1.1 million registered vehicles have no insurance, according to a 2015 analysis by legislative staff.
Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, a former prosecutor who sponsored the House bill, said the state's existing law has been "very poorly enforced over the years."
But new technology, in cooperation with the insurance industry, means Tennessee can "better enforce that law, to make sure everyone's responsible and has insurance if they're going to be driving a vehicle on our roads," Lamberth said. Georgia and Alabama have already implemented the technology.
"We want people to get insurance and obey the law," Lamberth said. "Have insurance, have a license or don't drive. Obey the rules of the road if you're going to be out there driving. That's the goal here, create incentives."
Tennessee's 95 county clerks will be required to check the online verification system when a vehicle's license tag comes up for annual renewal. No insurance means no renewal.
"It'll all be enforced at the state level," Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles said. "It'll be seamless with us."
The new penalty system begins with a $25 "coverage failure fee" when an uninsured vehicle is detected. Another $100 fine kicks in if proof of insurance is not provided within 30 days. The maximum general fine is $300, compared to $100 now.
The new law also allows police, who will have access to the online system, to have uninsured vehicles towed.
That was a pivotal issue in the death of Atwood. The driver who smashed into Atwood's vehicle had been stopped and cited hours earlier for not having proof of insurance, Lamberth said.
"Really, the only thing we've done is we've created a better mechanism to actually enforce what's on the books," Lamberth added. "It's not fair to the 80 percent who are paying [for insurance]."
Revenue Department spokeswoman Kelly Cortesi said the agency "worked carefully with auto insurance carriers and other stakeholders in order to ensure a well- designed system."
Not every lawmaker supported the legislation, citing the hardship on lower- income Tennesseans.
"You're going to take a man's means of supporting his family," Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, charged during legislative debate of the tow provision and other aspects of the bill. "That's oppressive."
Legislative analysts estimated some 200,000 Tennessee drivers won't be able to secure or maintain vehicle registration. Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, said the state is effectively "asking over 200,000 people that can't pay it to sit at home and, I guess, draw welfare because you can't get to work."
Ahead of the program's launch, state revenue officials are encouraging motorists to make sure they have proper insurance coverage or other financial responsibility in effect.
Motorists should make sure that their vehicle identification number, or VIN, is correct on registration and insurance documents.
The VIN is key because the online system will check registered policies from insurance companies' files. If the system can't confirm coverage for a motor vehicle, it will be marked "unconfirmed" and the owner should expect to get a notice from the Revenue Department.
The notices will direct the car owner to www.driveinsuredtn.com, where he or she can provide proof of minimum liability insurance or another form of financial responsibility under the law. Failure to comply could result in fines and eventually the suspension of the vehicle registration.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on twitter at AndySher1.