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.”  

Cameras take aim at traffic violators | Police to go high-tech at key intersections

Ray Huard

Run a red light and — flash — get a keepsake color snapshot, courtesy of San Diego police along with a $105 ticket.

Under a one-year pilot program approved by the City Council yesterday, special cameras will be installed within six months at 16 targeted intersections to photograph motorists who run red lights.

The snapshots will be mailed to the registered owners of cars or trucks caught cruising through the intersections under the soft glow of a traffic light that’s turned to red for stop.

If the registered owners weren’t driving when their cars or trucks were snapped, they can explain the situation by writing a note and the name of who was driving on the back of the photograph. Then they can mail it back to the city, said traffic engineer Julio Fuentes.

Those who don’t name the drivers could wind up arguing their case in court, Fuentes said.

To get their picture snapped, motorists will have to cross into the intersection after the light has turned red, said Dana King, marketing director for U.S. Public Technologies Inc., the firm that will install the cameras.

Rushing through on a yellow light won’t count, King said, even if the light changes to red when the car is partway through the intersection.

“We tend to err on the part of the driver,” King said.

For the first 30 to 60 days, those caught by the cameras will get a warning, Fuentes said.

The city has yet to decide which intersections will be equipped with the cameras, Fuentes said.

Those that have logged the highest number of accidents include:

  • 43rd Street at El Cajon Boulevard in the Kensington/City Heights area.
  • Fairmount Avenue at University Avenue in City Heights.
  • Fairmount Avenue at Orange Avenue in City Heights.
  • El Cajon Boulevard at Normal Street in University Heights.
  • Cleveland Avenue at Washington Street in the Hillcrest/University Heights area.
  • Heritage Road at Otay Mesa Road in Otay Mesa.
  • 33rd Street at El Cajon Boulevard in the Normal Heights/City Heights area.
  • 32nd Street and Harbor Drive in Barrio Logan.
  • 43rd Street at University Avenue in City Heights.
  • 4th Avenue at A Street downtown.
  • Ash Street at Front Street downtown.
  • 1st Avenue at A Street downtown.
  • 5th Avenue at Cedar St. downtown.
  • 42nd Street at University Avenue in City Heights.
  • 16th Street at Broadway downtown.
  • Deep Dell Road at Paradise Valley Road in the North Bay Terraces/South Bay Terraces area.
  • Fashion Valley Road at Hotel Circle North in Mission Valley.
  • University Avenue at Winona Avenue in City Heights.
  • 32nd Street at National Avenue in Memorial.
  • 3rd Avenue at A Street downtown.

    When an intersection is selected it will be posted with signs warning that cameras are present “so people will know what’s going on,” Fuentes said.

    The theory is that when people see the signs, they won’t risk running the lights, Fuentes said.

    The cameras, which cost about $50,000 each, will be installed and maintained by U.S. Public Technologies. The firm will not charge for the cameras. And if the cameras are kept for two years, there is no charge to the city for installing and maintaining them.

    Instead, United Technologies will get up to $25 of the fine paid by violators. If the city cancels the program after the first-year test period, it would have to pay United Technologies $150,000.

    El Cajon is installing similar cameras at five targeted intersections within the next two weeks under a pilot program run by U.S. Public Technologies, said El Cajon associate traffic engineer Trev Holman.

    San Francisco and Los Angeles have also started similar pilot programs, Fuentes said.

    In Los Angeles, cameras were installed at intersections along the Metrorail’s Blue Line where motorists were running both red lights and rail crossing guards, King said.

    Since then, the number of accidents has dropped by 92 percent at those intersections, King said.

    So far, the plan in El Cajon has prompted few complaints, aside from a few people who grumbled about having their picture taken without their permission, Holman said.

    “All we’re trying to do is reduce accidents,” Holman said. About 11 percent of accidents in El Cajon are caused by people running red lights.

    Fuentes said he had no firm estimate for San Diego, but 11 percent sounded low. “In some places, it ranges up to 30 percent.”

  • Cop car’s speed in fatality within law | Police say it topped posted limit, though

    A San Diego police officer whose patrol car hit and killed a jaywalker Sunday night was exceeding the posted speed limit by at least 10 mph, authorities said.

    But the officer did not violate any traffic laws, said traffic Sgt. Mike Healy, explaining that all motorists are permitted to exceed limits on city streets up to 55 mph if road conditions are safe.

    “The speed limit is suggested,” Healy said. “That doesn’t mean that’s what the speed limit is. If it’s safe to go 50, you can go 50. Most people don’t realize that.”

    The officer was on his way to a nonemergency domestic violence call on Balboa Avenue near Genesee Avenue at 10 p.m. when a pedestrian suddenly appeared in his path. The cruiser’s lights and siren were not activated.

    Investigators estimated the officer’s speed at between 50 to 54 mph in a 40 mph zone. The conditions at the time of the accident appeared to be safe for the officer to travel at that speed, Healy said.

    “The pedestrian was crossing in midblock in violation of the law,” Healy said. “He had been shopping at Ralphs (grocery store) and had pushed his cart up and over the center island and into the path of the police car.

    “There’s no gross negligence on the officer’s part. Most of the witnesses said he wasn’t speeding.”

    Officers may exceed all speed limits when they turn on their lights and siren. The officer in this case had not done so because he was not en route to an emergency, Healy said.

    The name of the man who died has not been released while authorities inform his relatives of his death. The officer’s name has also not been disclosed.

    Healy said the investigation will be completed within a week.