IN 2011, Insure.com found Oklahoma's average auto insurance costs were third-highest among the 50 states. Oklahoma's weather played a role, but so did our high rate of uninsured drivers.
AAA Oklahoma spokesman Chuck Mai says as many as 30 percent of Oklahoma drivers are uninsured. The Oklahoma Department of Insurance has pegged the number at more than 500,000 and estimates that this reduces state premium tax collections by more than $8.8 million annually.
The biggest cost is borne by law-abiding citizens unlucky enough to be hit by uninsured drivers. Financially, those individuals are forced to pay for repairs and higher insurance rates to cover costs created by the negligence of others — while also dealing with the personal challenges accompanying an auto accident.
Two state lawmakers have filed bills targeting uninsured drivers. Sadly, getting either measure through the Legislature is far from a sure bet.
Rep. Steve Vaughan, R-Ponca City, wants to require police to seize a vehicle when someone is caught driving without insurance. Currently, state law allows seizure, but does not mandate it. Rep. Mike Christian, R-Oklahoma City, has filed a bill to allow police to stop a vehicle solely because of noncompliance with insurance law. Currently, police must first have another reason to stop a car before they can issue a citation for lack of insurance coverage.
In recent years, the state has shifted to an online instant verification system that allows police to run car tags and instantly learn if a vehicle is insured. However, if a driver is obeying all other laws, officers have to let the uninsured car continue down the road. This may enrage Oklahomans who make financial sacrifices to pay their own expensive auto insurance, but it apparently doesn't bother lawmakers enough.
Last year, state Rep. Steve Martin, R-Bartlesville, submitted a bill similar to Christian's legislation. Martin's bill passed the House, was killed in the Senate, then revived upon reconsideration, and ultimately died in a conference committee. One opponent suggested Martin's bill was designed mostly to boost government revenue and enrich vendors, linking it to an unrelated proposal to install cameras on state highways and issue tickets without a traffic stop. There were enough red herrings in that argument to feed most of Oklahoma City's homeless.
For one thing, Martin's bill focused on actual police making actual traffic stops. There were no “spy cams” or tickets issued by remote computer programs. As for the idea vendors might make a profit, so what? Should we outlaw the use of computers at police stations because Dell's bottom line might benefit?
A more serious argument raised by some opponents was that the legislation violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. No doubt someone will make that argument in court if the bills by Vaughan and Christian become law, but we suspect both will pass muster.
Under the two bills, citizens wouldn't be pulled over or face the loss of their vehicle unless they're breaking the law by driving without auto insurance. Oklahomans with coverage would have nothing to fear except the prospect of lower insurance rates.
No single law will eliminate all uninsured driving. But it would help if Oklahoma legislators focused more on advancing policies that protect law-abiding drivers than on preserving the “rights” of lawbreaking uninsured motorists.