MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Happy New Year, uninsured drivers in Tennessee. You're being tracked.
January 1, the Tennessee Department of Revenue will launch a statewide Electronic Insurance Verification System. Equipped with policy and coverage data provided by insurance companies, the system will automatically "ping" Tennessee drivers' vehicle registrations for proof of liability insurance coverage. Liability coverage in auto policies has been compulsory in Tennessee since 1977.
"If the system cannot confirm coverage, that motor vehicle will be marked as 'unconfirmed' in the system," said Allison Raymer, the revenue department's director of vehicle services. She said drivers with vehicles marked as unconfirmed will receive notices in the mail that they are not in compliance. The notices will direct them to DriveInsuredTN.com to provide proof of insurance.
"Failure to comply with the notices could result in fines and eventually vehicle registration suspension," said Raymer.
"I like it," said Larissa Redmond of Cordova, Tennessee. In 2012, an uninsured driver without a valid driver's license was texting-and-driving when she plowed into Redmond's fiance, 23-year-old Clifton Gibbs, at a South Memphis intersection. Gibbs died on the scene. His death prompted Redmond to start the Collegiate Life Investment Foundation (C.L.I.F), a foundation that raises awareness of the dangers of distracted driving.
"If you're not responsible enough to get insurance, you should be assumed irresponsible, too irresponsible, to drive," Redmond said. "The verification system is about those firewalls (the state) is putting in place to make it difficult to go out there and drive without insurance. I'm sure it will have kinks, as any large governmental system has."
One kink in the system, according to Shelby County Clerk Wayne Mashburn, is it does not give Tennessee's county clerks the authority to deny the renewal of a driver's vehicle registration -- either online, by mail or in person at a county clerk's office -- when that driver cannot provide proof of insurance.
"It may not have the effect we really would want to keep people driving without insurance," Mashburn said.
"If I can still go and get my registration, then who's stopping me from driving?" Redmond asked.
The same law that mandated the insurance verification system also gives Tennessee law enforcement agencies the authority and discretion to tow the vehicles of drivers who cannot provide proof of insurance. Spokespersons for both the Memphis Police Department and the Tennessee Highway Patrol said neither agency is ready to commit to an uninsured motorist towing policy.
Earle Farrell, spokesperson for the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, said its patrols will not tow the vehicles of uninsured drivers because the office is not confident in the accuracy of the verification system. "It is not 100 percent accurate," Farrell said. "Until the database is more reliable, the sheriff's office wants to give citizens a chance to provide proof of insurance themselves in traffic court.This policy avoids leaving someone on the side of the road just because they forgot their (insurance card)."
The 2015 James Lee Atwood, Jr. law mandated the insurance verification system and towing authority. Passed by the Tennessee General Assembly and signed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam in 2015, the law is named after a 30-year-old Memphis man who was killed by an uninsured driver in July 2014. That driver, 25-year-old Roderick Maggett of Cordova, Tennessee, had been pulled over and cited earlier the same day for driving his sister's uninsured vehicle without proof of auto insurance coverage. Seven hours later, he slammed into Atwood, Jr.'s car, on Shelby Drive in Southeast Memphis, killing Atwood instantly. Maggett pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide.
In addition to the statewide verification system and police towing authority, the law tripled the misdemeanor fine for driving without insurance in Tennessee from $100 to $300.
Records from the Tennessee Department of Safety revealed in 2015, 43,129 drivers in Shelby County had their drivers licenses revoked. 15 percent of them (6,546) were also charged with driving without insurance. In 2016, 40,617 Shelby County drivers lost their drivers licenses for various violations. 22 percent of those (8,769) were driving without insurance.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, Tennessee is ranked sixth in the nation for uninsured motorists, with 20.1 percent of its drivers uninsured. Mississippi ranks third, with 22.9 percent uninsured. Arkansas ranks at 11, with 15.9 percent uninsured.