9 Investigates: Law To Reduce Uninsured Driving In Oklahoma Stuck In First Gear
OKLAHOMA CITY - Sometimes, it's good not to be number one.
Certainly, Oklahoma's insurance commissioner, John Doak, would prefer that Oklahoma were not the leading state when it comes to the percentage of uninsured cars on the road. Unfortunately, with 25 percent of motorists driving without insurance, one of every four, Oklahoma is indeed number one.
Commissioner Doak said he is determined to drop that dubious distinction, however, and is hopeful that a law he helped push through the Legislature in 2013 will do the trick.
It hasn't so far. In fact, almost a year and a half after the law went into effect, it's barely being used.
As a result, uninsured drivers are essentially everywhere, and police know it.
During a recent ride-along with a state trooper, it took only a few calls to dispatch to detect someone driving uninsured.
"Comes back to a 2003 GMC," crackled the dispatcher's voice over the two-way radio.
The trooper had called on the car because of an expired tag.
"Insurance unconfirmed," said the voice.
The trooper now knew this was someone who should not be on the road.
The rest of us find out the hard way, sometimes, literally.
"It was the most violent hit," recalled Gail Roberts, a long-time Stillwater resident who was involved in a bad wreck last summer.
"I was thinking, this can't really be happening," Roberts remembered.
It was a Sunday morning in July. Gail Roberts, her son and his wife were headed to church. Roberts was driving on Perkins Road when, without warning, another car slammed into her from behind.
"I think we all thought we are getting ready to die," said Roberts, still emotional about it more than a half year later.
No one died, but Roberts and her passengers were all hurt and her car was totaled. Fortunately, she was insured, because the 20-year-old who hit them was not. Roberts said he didn't even have a driver's license.
The frustration Roberts feels over the incident is palpable. The young man who hit her, and who should never have been on the road in the first place, was ticketed, but was able to walk away from the incident. Meanwhile, she is out more than $10,000 for the new car she had to buy, and said she is constantly in and out of the doctor's office.
"It's been totally devastating," Roberts exclaimed. "It's changed my entire life."
No law could possibly prevent all such devastating incidents, but Commissioner Doak's Temporary Motorist Liability Program was supposed to at least help, simply by ensuring that more of those on the road are insured.
The law gives police an option. Instead of impounding an uninsured driver's car, an officer now can remove the car's tag and replace it with a special, temporary tag which immediately insures the car for ten days.
The owner of the car then has ten days to provide proof that they have purchased insurance, if they want to get their permanent tag back.
Commissioner Doak said a similar law worked in Louisiana and he feels it will work here, as well, if law enforcement is on board.
"This needs to be something in their toolbox," Doak said, "something that they can use."
But so far, evidence suggests, law enforcement is not using it. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol, which said it writes about 25,000 tickets a year for driving uninsured, confiscated just six tags in the program's first year.
OHP officials said there were logistical roadblocks that prevented them troopers from using the law, but said they also have concerns that the law potentially puts troopers at risk.
"I think there are some safety concerns," said Capt. Paul Timmons, OHP spokesman, "especially if you work in one of the larger metro areas, as opposed to out in the rural areas where there's a lot less volume of traffic."
The fact that the trooper has to physically remove the car's tag and replace it with the temporary tag, Timmons said, carries some risk.
"This officer is going to be in between his patrol car and the violator's car," Timmons pointed out, "so there's a degree of officer safety that you have to be concerned with."
OHP is not alone in being slow to embrace the new law.
Police agencies that seize tags under the measure are required to turn them in to the local sheriff's Office. In turn, sheriff's offices report monthly the number of tags brought in to the Oklahoma Sheriff's Association.
In the first year of the program, from November 2013 through October 2014, the Sheriff's Association said less than half of Oklahoma's 77 counties took any tags at all. And in those 31 counties, the total number of tags seized was 1,536. Half of those were returned to the cars' owners when they were able to show that they had insurance, they just hadn't had proof when they were pulled over.
Law enforcement in Cleveland County have yet to use the law once.
"In the last 12 months, we have had zero tags turned into the Cleveland County Sheriff's Office, under this law," said Cleveland County Undersheriff Rhett Burnett. "Now I'm not saying the law's not working. I'm just saying, in Cleveland County, apparently law enforcement officers are taking other enforcement actions in regards to no insurance."
Undersheriff Burnett questioned the efficacy of a measure that, essentially, gives a 10-day grace period to people who have already shown they have little regard for the law.
"If they're not going to get insurance, which is the law," noted Burnett, "then, when their tag is seized and taken away from them, chances are they're probably not going to take the action to get that tag back."
Still, it bothered Gail Roberts that law enforcement isn't using the law. She said she feels they should be using every option available to keep uninsured drivers off the roads, and from doing to someone else what was done to her.
"I know life's not fair, but this is beyond not fair," said Roberts, crying. "I have to have a driver's license, I have to buy insurance, and I pay a lot on insurance, every year, and have forever."
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol said it is has eliminated the logistical obstacles to enforcing the law and is committed to making better use of it going forward. Commissioner Doak said he believes that will make the difference he's looking for.
"Many statewide law enforcement folks look to the highway patrol to be the leader," said Doak. "We just need more time."