New insurance law puts ticketed drivers in the red

Chet Barfield

Unemployed painter Doug Buse doesn’t have much money. He’s 36 and lives with his mother and stepfather in an El Cajon apartment.

Buse hadn’t owned a car for two years. He did drive one recently, however, and had the bad luck to be pulled over for a broken taillight.

Now Buse (rhymes with “juice”) is facing a $1,350 fine under California’s new law requiring all drivers to carry proof of insurance. And he thinks that’s unfair.

“I tried to explain to the judge that I didn’t have a car. He said, `You might drive, so you should have insurance.’ ” said Buse. “That’s asinine.”

The circumstances that brought Buse to El Cajon Municipal Court on May 7 are complicated. The short version of the story is that he is one of many thousands of drivers cited in San Diego County since the law went into effect Jan. 1.

“We probably get 40 to 50 people a day coming in here with insurance tickets,” said William McGrath, the judge handling most of the East County court’s traffic cases. “(The law) has obviously impacted us, and I’m sure it’s impacted every court in the state.”

Indeed, cases under the new law are ranging from about 700 a month in the South Bay to 2,500 in San Diego, according to Municipal Court administrators. The East County court processed more than 1,200 traffic-insurance citations last month; the North County, about 2,000.

“We’ve noticed the increase in workload, you bet,” said Sharon Cole, deputy San Diego Municipal Court administrator. “We’re busy.”

Clerks are picking up much of the load because many of those ticketed do not end up going before judges. They can come in and get the citation dismissed, for a $10 fee, by showing they did have insurance — just not the proof — when ticketed.

Others go out and get insurance after being cited. Upon verification, the fine is reduced by $1,200, to $150.

Meanwhile, drivers in unprecedented numbers are buying insurance before getting caught without it, which is what the law intended. Many are doing so because the state now requires proof of insurance to renew registration tags.

“We’ve seen a tremendous influx of new business from people who were not previously insured,” said David Lewis, a Rancho Penasquitos agent whose client list has more than doubled. “It certainly appears from our point of view that the new law is working.”

California law has long required minimum liability coverage, but compliance incentives were weak. Before the new statute’s enactment, it was estimated that as many as 30 percent of drivers remained uninsured.

Now, the DMV requires proof of insurance to process vehicle registrations. The new law also authorizes officers making traffic stops for any reason to ask for those little insurance cards, along with the driver’s license and registration. No policy? Here’s your citation and $1,350 fine.

The California Highway Patrol alone issued 127,842 no-insurance citations statewide — 7,345 in San Diego County — from January through April.

The law “has enabled us to take action against those people who have been getting away with this for a long time,” said Sgt. John Marinez, a CHP spokesman.

The American Agents Alliance, representing 700 independent agencies statewide, says the law is generating lots of business. Member agencies report numbers of new policies increasing 30 percent to 400 percent since January, said Executive Director Lorelle Hurlbut.

However, some carriers worry that the new clients will cost them more in claims. They also fear that scofflaws will buy a policy, get a card and quit making payments.

“We opposed the law because we didn’t feel it was workable,” said Lynnea Olsen, vice president of the Association of California Insurance Companies. She said it’s too soon to tell whether drivers in fact are buying policies and skipping on payments.

As for Buse, he contends that he didn’t own a vehicle, so why should he have insurance? He says he was buying the ’71 Volkswagen van from a private party and “test driving” it while making payments.

He’d had the van two weeks — most of that time in the shop — when he was ticketed March 29. The engine seized the next day and Buse walked away, telling the seller to come tow “his” van to the junkyard.

But the seller, William Pohlle of La Mesa, says Buse signed a typed bill of sale when he took the van March 16, and that the document held Buse responsible for insurance liability. “He was in full knowledge of what the situation was,” said Pohlle.

Under the law, no matter who owns a car, the driver must make sure it’s covered. “If you don’t, you’re in big old trouble,” said Mark Rakich, chief consultant for the state Assembly Insurance Committee.

None of this bodes well for Buse, who pleaded not guilty May 7 and has a court hearing on the matter scheduled June 11.

Judge McGrath, who did not preside over Buse’s initial appearance, said he hears arguments like his every day. “Thirty to 40 percent are claiming it wasn’t their car, or they were only driving around the block, or they’re only driving once a year.”

The judge tells them that if they were creamed by such a driver, “They would not consider it an appropriate excuse (to hear), `I was just driving around the block. I have no insurance, so I can’t pay your medical bills.’ “

McGrath estimates that about half of the motorists coming before him are opting to buy insurance and lower the fine.

He said, “I guess the good news is that of 100 people I see, 50 of them now have insurance who wouldn’t have had it before.”  

Posted in Article, San Diego Union Tribune.