9 Investigates: Oklahoma Uninsured Drivers Law Had Minimal Effect

Tuesday, November 24th 2015, 9:17 pm
By: News 9

It's been two years since a new law aimed at reducing Oklahoma's nation-leading rate of uninsured drivers went into effect and a News 9 investigation indicates the measure has had a minimal effect, at best. 

One of the problems, detailed in an earlier 9 Investigates report showed, was a lack of participation by law enforcement agencies in the Temporary Motorist Liability Program (TMLP). The state's largest police agency, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, had barely used the law at all through its first 14 months. Officials felt certain that would change.

"These are Grady County," said Lisa Hatchett, pointing to a thick folder in her file cabinet, "this is my guys."

Hatchett works in the Grady County Sheriff's Office where, among other things, she administers TMLP for Sheriff Jim Weir. Her file cabinet is proof that, at least in Grady County, those who dare to drive without insurance risk having their tags seized by local law enforcement.

"Chickasha, Minco, Ninnekah," Hatchett said, reading the names of just a few of the area police departments that are participating, bringing in seized tags to her office.

But it's the Grady County deputies, at the urging of Sheriff Weir, who have been leading the way.

"I have one deputy," noted Sheriff Weir, "and this year's not over--he's already seized 27 tags."

Under TMLP, which went into effect November 1, 2013, police gained an additional option in dealing with someone they've pulled over who can't provide proof of insurance. They can seize the driver's license plate and replace it with a temporary tag that carries basic state minimum liability coverage. The person then has ten days to show that they have insurance (either they have purchased it or they already had it, but just didn't have proof with them in the car), pays a $125 fine and gets their real tag back.

"Everybody benefits from it," explained Weir. "The person driving away then has insurance, and...it protects the other person they might be in an accident with on down the road."

In the law's first full year of enforcement, police seized the tags of 1,703 uninsured motorists. Through the first ten months of 2015, the number is up to 2,066. That's the good news.

The bad news is there are an estimated 600,000 uninsured drivers in Oklahoma, so these numbers are just a drop in a very large bucket. What's more, the number of law enforcement agencies using the law has not gone up. It's dropped, from 74 in 2014 to 67 this year.

"We haven't, to my knowledge," said Edmond Police spokesperson Jenny Wagnon, "since it's gone into effect, seized a tag."

The Edmond Police Department is not alone. None of the state's larger urban departments are using the law.

"We really haven't seen a need within our jurisdiction," said Wagnon.

Wagnon says most of the people they pull over who can't show proof of insurance really do have coverage--they just don't have their insurance card with them. She says, typically, the officer writes a ticket for no proof of insurance, giving the driver 30 days to come in an provide proof, at which point the ticket is torn up.

"It cuts out, honestly. them having to drive down to the [sheriff's office] and having to pay $125 to get their tag back." said Wagnon, "when, if they had insurance, they can come here, their ticket's dismissed when they show us that they had insurance at the time."

The law's backers had hoped for more widespread participation.

"You can have the best of intentions up here as legislators," said Sen. Corey Brooks, who sponsored the original legislation, "and governor's office signing what you think is a perfect piece of legislation, and then you go out and find holes in it."

Sen. Brooks, (R) Washington, acknowledged another hole they've found is at tag agencies, where some of those who've had their tags seized will go and fill out an affidavit, claiming their tag was lost or stolen.

"I have heard that as well," said Brooks, "and, in fact, that is a reality."

At the Classen Tag Agency in Oklahoma City, owner Jeff Segell says he hasn't noticed an increase in the number of people claiming their tags have been lost or stolen, but doesn't doubt that it's happening.

"The affidavit expressly states you're not supposed to use that as a means to circumvent law enforcement," Segell explained, "but, if they're willing to sign the affidavit, from a motor license agent's standpoint, that's all we can do."

The Oklahoma Tax Commission is working to close that loophole right now by flagging the motor vehicle accounts of those who've had tags seized.

"Hopefully it will be electronic in the very near future," said Tax Commission spokeswoman Paula Ross, "and until then we'll offer to manually--when they submit the list to us--manually put a hold on those tags."

The bottom line is, so far, the law hasn't helped.

"Absolutely, we've seen absolutely no dip in the amount of ‘uninsureds’ in Oklahoma," lamented State Insurance Commissioner John Doak.

The Insurance Commissioner is frustrated. He knows that other states have been able to solve the same problem, and knows that constituents in Oklahoma want it solved here.

"We get these consumer complaints all the time," Doak said, "'I have insurance, why do they not have it?'"

For every 100 cars on the road, 25 are uninsured. Doak says that's unacceptable. He is not giving up on the potential impact TMLP could have, but says he is also looking at other possible initiatives.