TN seeks tougher penalties on uninsured drivers after fatal crash

TN seeks tougher penalties on uninsured drivers after fatal crash
(Photo Source: SCSO)
(Photo Source: SCSO)

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Triple the fines. Seize their tags. Tow their cars.

The Tennessee General Assembly has come out swinging at uninsured drivers after one of them killed an insured Memphis driver last summer.

TN Rep. William Lamberth, (R) Cottontown, and TN Sen. Bill Ketron, (R) Murfreesboro, introduced companion bills that would triple the misdemeanor fine ($100 to $300) on drivers who violate the state's financial responsibility law (proof of insurance). If passed, the legislation would also require those drivers to pay reinstatement fees on top of the fines once they secure insurance. It would also create a statewide tracking system that randomly checks Tennessee vehicles' registration for insurance coverage.

"If they do not (have insurance), they will receive a notice that their registration could be revoked if they do not get insurance on the vehicle," said Lamberth.

Lamberth said he also plans to amend his bill to let law enforcement seize the tags and tow the cars of uninsured drivers at the time they are cited for violating the law.

If it passes, the law will be titled the James Lee Atwood Jr. Law.

Atwood, 30 of Memphis, was killed in an auto accident July 1, 2014, on Shelby Dr. According to the accident report, 24-year-old Roderick Maggett of Cordova -- no insurance, no seat belt and with an unrestrained 6-year-old in the back seat -- crossed the center line westbound and smashed head-on into Atwood, heading eastbound. Atwood was killed instantly.

The report indicated an adult passenger in the front seat with Maggett told officers on the scene that both Maggett and he "dozed off."

"How does that happen?" asked Atwood's mother, Rhonda Cochran. "You've got two grown people in the front seat, in the middle of the afternoon, and they're both sleeping?"

Memphis police arrested and charged Maggett with vehicular homicide, violation of Tennessee's financial responsibility (proof of insurance) law and violation of child restraint.

What the arresting officers didn't know is Shelby County sheriff's deputies pulled Maggett over earlier that same day, cited him for violation of the financial responsibility law and let him go.

"I'm not talking without talking to my lawyer," Maggett said when WMC Action News 5 confronted him at his sister's Cordova home.

"There actually was insurance on the vehicle," said Maggett's attorney Marty McAfee. He explained Maggett was driving his sister's vehicle. "She had insurance on the car. He just didn't have proof of it."

Cochran has proof the vehicle didn't have insurance.

When she tried to file a claim in the accident, Geico Insurance sent her a rejection letter. The letter revealed it "...would not be providing any coverage for the ...referenced claim to Roderick Maggett. The 2005 Trail Blazer was not on the policy on the date of loss."

"He never had insurance that day," Cochran said.

"Oh, wow," McAfee said when he saw a copy of the letter from Geico Insurance. "If there's not insurance, then there's not. I don't know if that would fix this because there is no amount of insurance that will make Atwood's family whole."

Cochran said what would make her family whole would be the tougher penalties Lamberth and Ketron have outlined in their proposals. "If you're pulled over, and you can't prove you have insurance, tow the car," she said. "Take it right then. Because if they had done that -- if we had a law like that here (in Tennessee) -- James Lee would still be alive today."

Atwood left behind his parents, a younger brother and 17-year-old Terry Arnold of Parkway Village. Atwood mentored the Sheffield High School art student when Arnold was in middle school. "I just wish he was still here," said Arnold. "I wish I could have called him.

"I just want to see him get justice. That's all."

Tennessee is sixth in the nation for uninsured drivers, according to PropertyCasualty360.com. 20 percent, nearly a million drivers, are uninsured. Lamberth said an uninsured driver either causes or is involved in 40,000 crashes a year in Tennessee.

Records from the Memphis City Court Clerk's Traffic Violations Bureau showed 46,727 drivers in Memphis were cited for violating the state's proof of insurance law in 2013. Last year, 30,439 were ticketed.

Memphis police records revealed officers have arrested 8,403 drivers for suspended, revoked or canceled licenses in the last 14 months.

"Responsible drivers who pay for insurance end up also paying for injuries caused by uninsured (or unlicensed) drivers," said Elizabeth A. Sprinkel, CPCU, senior vice president of the Insurance Research Council. "The heightened levels of uninsured motorists and the rising claim payments involved still remain a concern for insured drivers, insurers and policymakers."

"The only goal that we have with this legislation is to reduce the number of uninsured drivers on the road and hopefully make our roads here in Tennessee a little bit safer," said Lamberth.

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