NASHVILLE, TN (WMC) - All that's left is Gov. Bill Haslam's signature.
Both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly have passed the most aggressive package of penalties against the state's uninsured drivers since mandatory liability insurance was mandated in 1977.
Haslam is expected to sign the James Lee Atwood, Jr., bill into law. Once it is signed, the law 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. The program would follow the Insurance Industry Committee on Motor Vehicle Administration's tracking model and would not be implemented before Jan. 1, 2017.
"We have to have time to develop an analogous system to vehicle registration," said Tennessee Department of Revenue Commissioner Richard Roberts. "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."
* 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.
"We had over 40,000 crashes last year, in which one party or the other, or sometimes both, were uninsured, so this is a significant update to our code," said TN Rep. William Lamberth, (R) Sumner County, the chief sponsor of the house bill.
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. Twenty-three percent of its driving population -- nearly a million drivers -- is uninsured, according to Lamberth and to PropertyCasualty360.com.
Insurance sources indicated the legislation could help stabilize or even lower auto insurance premiums for consumers with excellent driving records.
"At best, it will stop the rise of premiums," said Memphis independent insurance agent Bennita Wade. "We're looking at 30 to 40 percent of the claims that we see (in Shelby County) having been uninsured motorists claims. It would definitely give the companies an incentive and a motive to hold rates where they are."
The bill is named after James Lee Atwood, Jr., of Memphis. Last July, an uninsured driver killed the insured 30-year-old Memphis man 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. A Shelby County grand jury indicted Maggett on vehicular homicide and reckless endangerment charges in connection with the accident.
"It lets me know that God's in control," said Atwood's mother, Rhonda Cochran. "So I think that justice is going to be served."