Tougher penalties, tracking of TN uninsured drivers pass first v - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Tougher penalties, tracking of TN uninsured drivers pass first vote

Tougher penalties, tracking of TN uninsured drivers pass first vote

Lawmakers listened at acted after Cochran's testimony. (Photo Source: WMC Action News 5) Lawmakers listened at acted after Cochran's testimony. (Photo Source: WMC Action News 5)
NASHVILLE, TN (WMC) -

They gave her a standing ovation.

Sitting nervously before a Tennessee House committee, Memphis mother Rhonda Cochran poured her heart out about the death of her 30-year-old son James Lee Atwood, Jr., at the hands of a reckless, uninsured driver.

"As his mother, I will never truly get over this loss," she tearfully told committee members. "In fact, it is so overwhelming some days, I have to actually stop and think that he truly is gone."

When she ended her testimony, lawmakers passed the first legitimate package of penalties against Tennessee's uninsured drivers in three decades.

Both the Tennessee House Insurance & Banking Committee and the Tennessee Senate Commerce & Labor Committee passed the first draft of the James Lee Atwood, Jr. Law. If it survives the next level of committee votes and the full vote of both the Tennessee House and Senate, it would, in its current version:

* Raise the misdemeanor fine for violating Tennessee's financial responsibility (proof of insurance) law from $100 to $250.

* Create a statewide insurance verification program that would track down uninsured drivers through their vehicle registration.

* Allow county clerks to suspend a driver's registration if the driver does not comply with the financial responsibility law and assess a $300 reinstatement fee.

* Give Tennessee police departments the discretion to tow the vehicles of drivers cited for violation of the financial responsibility law.

"It won't just be willy-nilly the officer just kind of towing or not towing depending on what they feel like," said TN Rep. William Lamberth, (R) Sumner County, the chief sponsor of the house bill. "But our (police) departments will control the policy for how they do that within the department."

The Tennessee Department of Revenue would implement and administer the insurance verification database. The fines and fees generated by uninsured drivers would pay for the program, according to the legislation.

However, the tracking database would not be implemented before Jan. 1, 2017.

"We have to have time to develop an analogous system to vehicle registration," said Richard Roberts, the revenue department's commissioner. "We will not eliminate the idea of having a third-party develop it. For example, we don't want to hire extra state workers when a private contractor could handle that, but the legislation gives us that flexibility."

Tennessee passed a mandatory proof of liability insurance law in 1977. It requires Tennessee drivers to carry minimum levels of liability:  $25,000 for one injury or death, $50,000 for all injuries or death and $15,000 for property damage. But the penalty for violating the law is a misdemeanor fine of $100.

As a result, Tennessee is sixth in the nation for the number of uninsured drivers. More than 20 percent of its driving population -- nearly a million drivers -- is uninsured, according to PropertyCasualty360.com.  Lamberth testified those drivers contribute to 40,000 accidents a year in Tennessee.

According to a spreadsheet Lamberth submitted of states that have implemented the verification database since 1989, Pennsylvania saw a drop in uninsured drivers from 16.6 percent in 1989 to 6.6 percent in 2009. Florida, however, experienced an increase in uninsured drivers after it implemented the database:  18.6 percent in 1989 to 23.5 percent in 2009, according to the spreadsheet.

Both committees passed the bill unanimously.

Lamberth and Sen. Bill Ketron, (R) Rutherford County, said it adds teeth to what has already been the law in Tennessee for more than 30 years: the requirement of proof of liability auto insurance.

It would go a long way to enforcing the law on drivers like Christopher Heflin, formerly of Millington and now living in Collierville. Police records indicated he has been charged three times in nine years for driving with either no insurance, no license or no valid vehicle registration.

Or 19-year-old Tyree Graves of Southeast Memphis. While driving without insurance, she wrecked the vehicle of a former cop.

Or 24-year-old Roderick Maggett of Cordova, the man who now faces a vehicular homicide charge and what his lawyer calls a certain Shelby County grand jury indictment for the killing of Rhonda Cochran's son last July.

"These lawbreakers who don't carry insurance...who just walk away with no consequences...continue because they are fully aware that the current law is weak, and they won't be held accountable for their actions," Cochran said. "The new law just passed (the committee votes) with flying colors, so that makes us really happy."

THE NEXT VOTE IS TUESDAY, MARCH 31. That day, the legislation is scheduled to be presented to the Tennessee House Government Operations Committee and the Tennessee Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee.

The bills are House Bill 0606 and Senate Bill 0648. West Tennessee members of the committees voting that day include:

* TN Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, (D) Ripley (District 82: Lauderdale, Crockett & Haywood counties)

* TN Rep. Curtis Halford, (R) Dyer (District 79: Gibson & Carroll counties)

* TN Sen. Mark Norris, (R) Collierville (District 32: Shelby & Tipton counties)

* TN Sen. Reginald Tate, (D) Memphis (District 33: Shelby County)

Please click on those links for the information to contact each senator or representative. Call or email them and ask them to vote "YES" on HB 0606 or SB 0648 in committee on Tuesday, March 31.

Copyright 2015 WMC Action News 5. All rights reserved.


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    THE NEXT VOTE IS TUESDAY, MARCH 31. That day, the legislation is scheduled to be presented to the Tennessee House Government Operations Committee and the Tennessee Senate Finance, Ways Means Committee.More >>
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