TN House of Reps passes tougher penalties, tracking of uninsured - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

TN House of Reps passes tougher penalties, tracking of uninsured drivers

TN House of Reps passes tougher penalties, tracking of uninsured drivers

James Lee Atwood Jr. died in a crash with an uninsured driver in July 2014. (Photo Source: WMC Action News 5) James Lee Atwood Jr. died in a crash with an uninsured driver in July 2014. (Photo Source: WMC Action News 5)

The Tennessee House of Representatives voted Thursday to add more accountability and tougher penalties to the state's nearly 40-year-old law requiring auto liability insurance, despite protests that the measure would disenfranchise poor drivers.

By a vote of 63 to 25 -- with four lawmakers present, but not voting -- house members passed the James Lee Atwood, Jr. bill. In the house's final version, the bill would:

* Raise the misdemeanor fine for violating Tennessee's financial responsibility (proof of insurance) law from $100 to $300, starting July 1. TN Rep. William Lamberth, (R) Cottontown/Sumner County, said that would raise $2.8 million in state revenue. 

* Authorize the creation of a statewide insurance verification program that would track down uninsured drivers through their vehicle registrations. Fine revenue would help finance the program, which would be developed and managed by the Tennessee Department of Revenue.

* Create a rising schedule of fines on drivers determined to be uninsured through the verification program. The maximum penalty would be suspension of their registrations and seizure of their tags, with a $300 reinstatement fee.

* Give law enforcement agencies the discretion to tow the vehicles of drivers cited for violation of the financial responsibility law.

"This will save lives," said Lamberth, a former prosecutor. He said uninsured drivers are involved in 40,000 accidents a year in Tennessee. He testified that the latest data shows 23 percent of Tennessee drivers -- approximately a million -- are uninsured, even though mandatory liability coverage has been the law since 1977.

"If 23 percent are ignoring it, it's costing all of us," Lamberth said. "They get in crashes that damage property, and they get in crashes that kill people."

The bill is named after James Lee Atwood, Jr., of Memphis. Last July, an uninsured driver killed the 30-year-old Memphis man -- who was insured -- in an accident on Shelby Dr. in Southeast Memphis. Police pulled over 24-year-old Roderick Maggett of Cordova earlier that day and cited him for driving without proof of insurance. Without the authority to detain Maggett or his vehicle, officers let him drive off -- only to crash into and kill Atwood Jr. seven hours later while still driving without insurance. Tuesday, a Shelby County grand jury indicted Maggett on vehicular homicide and reckless endangerment charges in connection with the accident.

"He never should have been on the road, period," Lamberth said.

Yet, some lawmakers voted against the measure out of concern that the towing discretion would be punitive against poor drivers.

"You're going to take a man's means of supporting his family," said TN Rep. Joe Towns, (D) Memphis. "That's oppressive."

Lamberth also incurred the wrath of some lawmakers when he testified that if the bill becomes law, 200,000 of Tennessee's approximately one million uninsured drivers will not be able to secure insurance or maintain vehicle registration.

"So we're asking over 200,000 people that...can't pay it to sit at home and, I guess, draw welfare because you can't get to work," said TN Rep. Bill Dunn, (R) Knoxville.

TN Rep. Bill Beck, (D) Nashville, reminded lawmakers that the state has an assigned risk pool that subsidizes insurance for poor drivers who qualify. "Anyone can get insurance who needs it," he said.

Lamberth added that Tennessee drivers can secure the minimum legal amount of liability insurance ($25,000 for one injury or death; $50,000 for all injuries or death and $15,000 for property damage) for an average cost of $30 a month.

"Not having enough money is not a good enough excuse to not follow the law, and none of us who have ever been poor have ever said that when you're talking about minimal cost," he said.

Rhonda Cochran, Atwood Jr.'s mother, praised Lamberth and house members for passing the bill in honor of her son. She said she expects the senate to pass its version when it comes up for a vote next week.

"I think the law will pass, and that's going to be a good thing for everyone in Tennessee," she said.

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