A new law makes it a bit more expensive for Tennessee motorists to drive without valid insurance.
The law, which went into effect July 1, is aimed at cutting into the estimated 20 percent of motorists who drive without the most basic insurance coverage. But it's causing some concern from those in the legal community.
"The new law limits what the judges would be able to do in a case like this," Chattanooga City Court Judge Sherry Paty said. "With a first offense, generally, the case would have been dismissed with an order to pay court costs if the driver could show proof of valid insurance at the time of their court date."
But the new law requires judges who hear cases of driving on revoked insurance to forward those charges to the state Department of Safety. There, the driver's license will be revoked, according to the state law, and drivers then must pay the local fine and a reinstatement fee after they show that they indeed have valid insurance.
State Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, the sponsor of the bill, said the idea was to reduce uninsured motorists on the roads.
"Recently, I heard from a woman who was struck by an uninsured motorist who was texting," Sen. Burchett said. "They were banged up pretty bad and had to go to the hospital. They are stuck with all those bills now, and the wreck wasn't her fault."
Tennessee had the sixth-highest percentage of uninsured motorists in the country, according to 2006 data compiled by the Pennsylvania-based Insurance Research Council. And the state has no real way of tracking who does and does not have insurance, the council reported.
Georgia runs a network that links insurance providers at the state Department of Drivers Services and Department of Revenue. If insurance lapses, the Department of Revenue is notified and a the driver's tag is suspended, said Susan Sports, spokeswoman for drivers services. If the insurance goes unpaid, or if there are multiple lapses, the driver's license can be revoked, she said.
Tennessee, even with the changes, only knows if a motorist is uninsured if they are stopped by police or involved in an accident.
North Carolina requires motorists to provide proof of insurance when registering a vehicle each year. If a lapse occurs, the state is informed and the state patrol confiscates the driver's license plate, state data shows.
That's a system that would work better for Tennessee, said Dayton, Tenn., City Court Judge William G. McPheeters.
"I suspect the Legislature will change this law when they reconvene," Judge McPheeters said. "This change is going to overload the people in Nashville."
Judge McPheeters also doesn't appreciate not having any discretion in his courtroom. He said many first-time offenders simply are having a tough time financially and deserve a stern warning and some leniency, but he admits many people gamed the previous system.
"I suspected some of those people, after we'd give them a break and they went out and got insurance, the next day they may go and cancel it," the judge said. "But on the other hand, I had a woman in court who was a single parent with six children who had been laid off from her job. Revoking her license isn't helping her situation."