Tennessee drivers can now be towed on the spot if they're unable to provide proof of insurance to law enforcement officers during a traffic stop.
A section of state law that took effect this year gives law enforcement agencies the new authority as part of a broader push to crack down on the estimated 660,000 uninsured motorists in Tennessee.
Drivers have been required to carry auto insurance since 1977, but the new law opens additional avenues for enforcement. As well as allowing for the immediate tow, the law increases the minimum fee for not carrying proof of insurance from $100 to $300, and mandates development of a statewide electronic insurance database by 2017 so law enforcement can immediately verify a driver's insurance.
State Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottonwood, who sponsored the law, said he hopes to reduce the number of uninsured drivers on the road.
"Our hope is that each law enforcement agency will look at who they're seeing flagrantly disregard the insurance requirement," he said. "If you're not going to follow the law, you should not have the ability to drive on our roadways."
Law enforcement officers aren't required to tow a vehicle whose driver can't provide proof of insurance; they simply have the option to do so, Lamberth added. Under the law, officers can only tow a vehicle if their law enforcement agency has a policy in place to guide the process.
Neither Chattanooga police nor the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office have created policies that directly address towing a vehicle because of a lack of insurance, spokesmen said.
"At this point, we are seeking guidance from the Legislature as to how to move forward as there are still some gray areas which need to be better defined," sheriff's office spokesman Matt Lea said in a statement. "The statue states the vehicle can be towed, but it doesn't state what can be done or should be done with the vehicle after it is towed. There is still a lot of planning and research going into this before we will consider a policy."
Chattanooga police spokesman Kyle Miller said the department plans to review and revise its existing towing policy in light of the new law.
"As with all laws set forth by the state, the Chattanooga Police Department will enforce with discretion during the appropriate situations," he said in a statement.
The new law likely will reduce the number of uninsured drivers in Tennessee in the long run, said Glenn McLendon, regional director of insurance and membership at the American Automobile Association in Tennessee.
"It's going to eventually have a great impact," he said. "As people become aware of the financial cost if they get pulled over and cannot provide a valid proof of insurance — the amount of money to have their car towed, the storage fee, the fine for not having insurance — it's getting the message out there that if you think insurance is expensive, look how expensive it will be if you get caught [without it]."
Some opponents say the law places an unfair burden on low-income drivers who can't afford to pay for insurance.
But Don Lindsey, Tennessee spokesman for AAA, said carrying insurance is an important safety measure that shouldn't be ignored.
"It can be tough on folks who are struggling to get by, but the consequences [of a crash] are pretty severe and it's something we all have to look at and step up to," he said. "It's understandable that there is some concern about that, but regardless of anything else, we are driving machines that can and do kill people."
At least six other states have enacted similar laws, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a national organization dedicated to insurance education. Louisiana, Texas, Utah, California, Oklahoma and Arizona have comparable laws on the books.
In Arizona, for example, officers can tow a vehicle if the driver can't produce proof of insurance and the driver has either a suspended or revoked license.
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