DMV infractions on the record longer

James P. Sweeney,

SACRAMENTO — Millions of Californians could face higher auto insurance rates, and some already are having a tough time finding jobs, as a result of the Wilson administration’s decision to quietly rewrite rules that govern public disclosure of driving records.

The administrative edict lengthened the time that offenses ranging from too many moving violations to drunken driving remain public record. The change was made in November by Gov. Pete Wilson’s appointees in the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Those guilty of such vehicular misconduct tend to evoke little sympathy. But motorists who have had old violations resurface or linger longer than expected say it amounts to changing the rules after their debt to society was set and, in some cases, paid.

Insurance companies almost certainly will use the additional information to raise rates for those with spotty driving records and to assess such penalty premiums much longer than they have in the past.

Brian Soublet, an attorney and rating specialist with the Department of Insurance, said the industry has clear legal authority and is expected to factor the new information into their premiums.

The Department of Insurance recently repealed rules that had restricted insurers to a “three-year snapshot” of driving records for rating purposes, he noted.

Harry Benedict, a construction manager from Encinitas, was incensed when he discovered his nearly 7-year-old DUI, which under the old rules was about to be wiped off his record, is going to be with him for three more years.

“What the DMV is doing … benefits insurance companies to the tune of millions of dollars, and I think it’s an outrage,” Benedict said.

The new disclosure revisions were executed with no public notice, although the insurance industry had been involved and at least some of the new rules clearly reflect insurers’ wishes.

Industry is a supporter

Throughout Wilson’s political career, the insurance industry has been one of his strongest supporters, providing more than $1 million for his 1994 re-election effort alone.

Wilson administration officials say the changes were dictated solely by a multiyear review prompted by numerous changes in law.

Nonetheless, the new guidelines position the industry to take advantage of two potentially landmark developments about to play out in the auto insurance arena. They also could generate a new, backdoor revenue stream for an industry under mounting political and competitive pressure to reduce auto rates for its best customers.

On Feb. 18, insurers must submit new auto rating plans based on the “good driver” provisions of Proposition 103. For the first time, those rating plans must make individual driving records the dominant factor.

A new law effective Jan. 1 also threatens the state’s estimated 5 million uninsured motorists with the loss of their cars and their licenses if they continue to drive without coverage.

Such license suspensions in the past have been public record for one year. Under the new rules, they will remain on drivers’ records for three years, the precise window that insurers can use such blemishes to deny the 20 percent “good-driver” discount mandated by Proposition 103.

Little-noticed action

Sally Reed, a respected former Los Angeles County chief administrator who heads the DMV, ordered the disclosure revisions in a little-noticed action on Nov. 1.

“It’s strictly looking at the law, the information that we maintain and the requirement that we make it available,” Reed said. “We are required to maintain the information. We don’t have a legal basis to refuse to provide it.”

Disclosure periods for a handful of offenses, such as reckless driving and hit-and-run, were shortened. But for twice as many other situations, time lines were lengthened. The most contentious change has been the extension from seven to 10 years for drunken driving convictions. However, untold millions with less serious violations also will be affected.

In addition to insurers, many employers review driving records of job applicants.

“It’s unfair,” said Mark Lopez, an unemployed truck driver from Rancho Dominguez near Los Angeles. “I did everything the court asked, everything the DMV asked — community service, AA meetings, paid a lot of money to go to this drunk driver school.”

Lopez had expected an old DUI to disappear from his record late last year as the court and DMV promised in terms set out at his sentencing. It did lapse, for two months.

“I went to get a DMV printout for a job interview and all of a sudden they had it all back on there,” he said.

With his DUI back on his record, Lopez said he didn’t bother to go to the interview.

“It’s going to hurt a lot of people,” he said. “It makes it tough.”

Maze of rules consolidated

Reed and her top lieutenants say the department merely consolidated a complex, overlapping maze of statutory and administrative obligations to maintain driver records.

Over the years, changing laws required the DMV to keep some records, such as DUIs, longer than it historically had made those records public. Reed said she simply concluded that the state’s Public Records Act required full disclosure.

That may be true, conceded state Sen. Quentin Kopp, a San Francisco Independent and chairman of the Transportation Committee. But he said the department should have aired its intentions at a public forum.

Kopp said he suspects the DMV acted largely at the behest of the insurance industry and the governor’s office. It would be unusual for Reed to pull the trigger on such a potentially controversial move without clearance from Wilson’s top aides.

“It’s the manner of making the changes and the secrecy in doing so, which bothers me,” he said. “I think the department deserves a spanking for acting in response to insurance companies’ pressure and without a public hearing.”

Sean Walsh, Wilson’s press secretary, said the governor’s office neither initiated nor passed final judgment on the revisions.

“There was no decision made in the governor’s office,” Walsh said. “The (DMV) simply informed us that the changes made in reporting were to bring DMV policies in compliance with statute.”

Kopp plans to grill Reed at a public hearing soon and is pondering legislation that would roll back some of the reporting time lines.

Reed insisted she was not prodded by anyone.

“I never had a call from an insurance company. I never met with an insurance company,” she said. “I haven’t had any dealings with them. Now they are interested, obviously. But they haven’t made any requests of me. … Nobody intervened in this decision. It was strictly looking at the law and what options we had.”

No one disputes that insurers have for years been pushing the DMV for greater access to its records, particularly since the passage of Proposition 103. A top priority was extending from one to three years the disclosure of license suspensions.

The Personal Insurance Federation, a trade group that represents most of the state’s largest auto insurers, sponsored legislation to do just that two years ago. The bill was shelved when DMV officials said they could provide the access administratively, said Dan Dunmoyer, the federation’s president.

Consumer groups surprised

While the new disclosure guidelines were being developed, the federation reminded the DMV of its desire to have all license suspensions declared public record for at least three years, Dunmoyer said.

Consumer groups, in contrast, had no idea the disclosure rules were being revised until they received a DMV bulletin sometime in November, after the changes had been made.

“This is exactly what the industry wants,” said Michael Shames of the San Diego-based Utility Consumers’ Action Network. “I can tell you it was not driven by consumers or consumer groups.”

Harvey Rosenfield, the author of Proposition 103, said he has no objection to the changes.

“In our view, you get a 20 percent discount if you’re a good driver,” Rosenfield said. “That means not more than one moving violation in three years. But people who have a better record than that could conceivably get an even better discount. So it’s good for us to have this information out there.”  

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.