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Uninsured Driving Not Easy to Curb

Jul 21, 2007

By LEIGH BELL

Oklahoma is tackling uninsured drivers with a new insurance- verification program scheduled for next summer, but the system doesn't address an obvious contributor to the problem -- illegal immigrants.

The real-time verification system allows law enforcement to immediately determine if a driver has car insurance.

Right now, officers on traffic stops can't determine if proof of insurance is valid.

The verification system aims to reduce the problem of uninsured drivers that ratchets up insurance premiums and drives up danger on the roads.

But the system won't unwind a legislative pickle that indirectly prevents illegal immigrants from obtaining car insurance by denying them driver's licenses.

"We know we have a lot of illegal residents who cannot get a driver license," said Lonnie Jarman, director of financial responsibility at the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety.

"Here we have a problem until we get this thing resolved because they have cars."

UF3 Defining the problem: Insurance industry experts say many people drive on state roads in violation of state liability insurance mandates. Most of them are U.S. citizens, and all of them are a problem.

"When people go without insurance, those of us who do buy insurance are the ones who ultimately end up paying," said Elizabeth Sprinkel, senior vice president of the Insurance Research Council.

Jarman estimates up to one-quarter of Oklahoma drivers don't have car insurance, which violates a state requirement of liability coverage for all cars on the road.

Other estimates are lower, like the 15 percent of uninsured motorists reported in 2004 by the Insurance Research Council.

"No one can tell you what the number is because it's a constantly moving target," Jarman said.

"Cars are bought and sold, and insurance plans are sold and canceled every day."

Based on the higher estimate, 800,000 of the 3.2 million privately owned and registered vehicles in Oklahoma are without insurance, according to Department of Public Safety statistics.

The number of illegal immigrants driving without insurance is far more elusive than the number of uninsured motorists altogether.

That's because the state doesn't know exactly how many illegal immigrants are within its borders.

The number was recently estimated at 40,000 to 60,000 by U.S. Rep. John Sullivan, a Republican from Tulsa who has made policing illegal immigration a political passion.

'Like society doesn't care': The state does not knowingly issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, and insurance companies rarely issue coverage to unlicensed drivers.

Neither a driver's license nor auto insurance is needed to buy a car, although insurance is required to register a vehicle with the state.

The stories are perennial about friends or family members involved in car accidents with uninsured and undocumented immigrants. Even Jarman from the Department of Public Safety shared one about his daughter in Texas.

Kay Thompson Keithline's story began May 2 near 61st Street and Sheridan Avenue. The 72-year-old woman's Mercedes was rear-ended by a Ford Taurus that witnesses said was driven by a "heavy-set Hispanic male," according to the Tulsa Police Department's collision report.

It said the driver and passenger of the Ford fled on foot, leaving the car at the scene.

Police did not find any insurance verification in the car, and a representative from Keithline's insurance company, Farmers Insurance Group, confirmed he was uninsured.

The driver's immigration status was not addressed.

Keithline said her car was repaired for $7,000, which insurance paid minus a $500 deductible.

Her trust in the system remains damaged.

"It makes me feel like society doesn't care anymore," she said.

Hit and run: The number of uninsured drivers nationwide increased from 12.7 percent in 1999 to 14.6 in 2004, the Insurance Research Council reported.

When asked if immigration influenced the increase, Sprinkel said the answer is "beyond the scope of the study."

No true measure exists to know how, if at all, immigration has affected the problem of uninsured drivers.

The Tulsa Police Department last month issued 1,111 citations for no proof of insurance. That was slightly up from 1,007 in the same month last year.

The drivers cited might have been insured but didn't have up-to- date proof, or proof at all.

Roughly 240 hit-and-runs occur each month, but drivers leave accident scenes for a variety of reasons, including lack of insurance.

"Illegal immigration is one of our issues (with uninsured drivers)," said Jarman from Public Safety.

"Until the federal government reaches a decision and that is dealt with, it is going to be a problem."

Leigh Bell 581-8465

leigh.bell@tulsaworld.com

(c) 2007 Tulsa World. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.



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