Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol. You can sign up on his website to receive the Capitol Updates newsletter by email.
Legislators hear lots of complaints from their constituents about uninsured drivers. Few things are more frustrating to law abiding citizens than to be in accident caused by someone who is out of compliance with the state’s compulsory insurance law, and who has no insurance. To protect themselves against uninsured drivers most people pay the extra premium for uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage on their own cars. But uninsured motorist insurance does not cover the property damage to your car and may not be enough to cover your injury damages. As with other kinds of insurance, people who cause damages but have no insurance make the rates higher for those who do carry insurance.
To try to find a solution to the problem there was an interim study in the Senate week before last and in the House last week. The Senate study, requested by Sen. Corey Brooks, R-Washington, focused on a recently passed law allowing officers to remove the tag from an uninsured vehicle and replace it with a paper tag good for 10 days during which the car would be insured by a fund created from penalties paid by uninsured drivers. The complicated process had met with mixed results and reluctance on the part of law enforcement agencies, including some highway patrol troopers to confiscate the tags. A problem that surfaced during the hearing was the inaccuracy of the state’s computer system to verify for law enforcement who does and who does not have insurance. Some people pay for their insurance monthly but their insurance verification card is issued for 6 months. Someone with a card could be uninsured, but the state’s system is only as accurate as the information it receives from the insurance companies.
The House study, requested by Rep. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa, and Rep. Shane Stone, D-OKC, took a different approach. Looking at why drivers do not have liability insurance, legislators heard that many would like to have coverage, but they cannot get insurance because they are unlicensed drivers. In many cases they are unlicensed because they are undocumented immigrants, ineligible for an Oklahoma driver’s license. Ironically, one thing the state is really good at is keeping undocumented noncitizens from getting a license. The suggestion was made that Oklahoma adopt a policy used in some other states to allow these immigrants to get some sort of authorization to drive, which would then allow them to obtain liability insurance. Of course this presents its own problems in the form of identifying who people are, plus the political problem of actually acknowledging the fact that they are here.
Most of the efforts in the past have been toward holding people accountable who fail to buy insurance. But these share a weakness in that they do not address the issue of people who would like to buy insurance but cannot because they are either ineligible or they are too poor, which unfortunately is a reality for many in our state. The other weakness has been that the penalties are often seen by the people who have to enforce them as counterproductive, causing more problems than they solve. It would be a good thing if legislators could find a way to help people actually get insurance as well as punishing those who do not have it.