A long-delayed crackdown on uninsured Mississippi motorists took a step forward Tuesday, after a panel of lawmakers removed a glitch in the measure that halted it last year.
Lawmakers in 2012 passed a law requiring the Department of Public Safety to create a computer verification system. It would allow law enforcement to check whether motorists have valid insurance when they are stopped for other reasons.
A private vendor that operates a similar system in Alabama was hired, but the system has faced developmental delays and problems integrating it with local government systems. Lawmakers have had to tweak and extend the bill numerous times.
House Insurance Chairman Gary Chism, R-Columbus, an insurance agent who has pushed for tighter enforcement of compulsory auto insurance for years, said the system “went live on Sept. 5” after a trial run of about six months.
“And lo and behold, on Sept. 6, they found a glitch in the law and had to stop it,” Chism said. “This we’re doing today is called a fix-it bill.”
The extension passed last year inadvertently referred to violations as civil instead of criminal. City courts do not have jurisdiction over such civil violations, so Mississippi municipalities could not enforce the law.
On Tuesday, after a brief debate on the newest version of the bill, House Insurance Committee members on a voice vote sent the revised measure to the full House.
“I’m told if we make the changes and pass it, and the Senate passes it, we can get started with these tickets the day the governor signs it,” Chism said.
If enacted again, the bill would create a $300 fine for a first offense of driving without minimum coverage, $400 for a second offense and $500 for subsequent offenses. Eventually, Chism said, the law is expected to generate up to $10 million a year.
The version passed Tuesday would earmark half the proceeds from violations to the Highway Patrol for “trooper schools” to train and hire more officers and half to the state’s hospital trauma system.
Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, questioned during Tuesday’s committee hearing whether the Highway Patrol funding would incentivize troopers to be heavy handed with uninsured motorist tickets.
“We are almost incentivizing them to mess with folks,” Hines said. “… It’s like, there’s a Lexus, there goes a Mercedes, but look, I’m going to stop this raggedy old pickup because if he had insurance, his truck would be repaired.”
Chism said the caveat in the law that insurance can’t be a primary reason for a traffic stop would prevent that.
“I think this bill may have the kiss of death,” Hines said. “We’ve had to deal with it six times now.”
An estimated 25 percent to 30 percent of Mississippi motorists drive uninsured, state Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney has said, although exact figures are hard to come by. Reducing the number would save all motorists money on premiums — and after wrecks. But Chaney has also said reducing distracted driving, such as texting while driving, would create more savings in premiums, and he has warned a crackdown on insurance if not done properly could cause problems for innocent motorists.
Mississippi has had a compulsory auto liability insurance law since 2000, that includes a $500 fine, but it has not been strongly enforced for much of its life.
Insurance industry leaders have said they support efforts on compulsory auto insurance, provided the computer systems used gives accurate information.
Another bill proposed last year that would have required motorists to have minimum coverage before they could renew their auto tags passed the House but died in committee in the Senate without a vote.
On Tuesday Chism said: “What we’d really like is for this thing to get passed, send it to the Senate, have the governor sign it and finally start issuing these danged tickets.”
Contact Geoff Pender at 601-961-7266 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.