TN governor signs law to boost fines, tow cars of uninsured drivers

TN governor signs law to boost fines, tow cars of uninsured drivers
Published: Jun. 11, 2015 at 10:35 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 12, 2015 at 2:14 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Pain is Michael Stevens' partner for life.

"I've had eight surgeries," said the Bartlett, Tennessee man, wincing through physical therapy. "I'll never be able to go back to work."

He will never go back to work as an AT&T lineman. That's what he was doing -- orange cones forming a perimeter around his company truck on New Brunswick Rd. in Bartlett Jan. 9 -- when Pizarro Wesley of Memphis veered off the road and right into Stephens as he stood at the truck's left front quarter-panel.

The impact severed Stephens's right leg below the knee.

Wesley, a Shelby County deputy jailer, pleaded guilty to failure to control his vehicle, driving on a suspended license, and driving without insurance. He paid a $250 fine, got his license reinstated -- and he gets to keep his job as a deputy jailer.

"I have to deal with this every day. I've been through enough," Wesley said.

"His life has not changed one bit," snapped Stephens. "He is still working for Shelby County as a jailer. Mine has changed dramatically -- forever -- because of this man driving on a suspended license and no insurance. It's ridiculous."

It's the story we've repeated here over and over again: Reckless, uninsured driver destroys property. Injures someone. Or kills someone.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed his name on the line to try to put a stop to it all.

Wednesday, Haslam signed the James Lee Atwood, Jr., Law, the most aggressive package of penalties against the state's uninsured drivers since mandatory liability insurance was mandated in Tennessee in 1977.

Effective July 1, the law will:

* Raise the misdemeanor fine for violating Tennessee's financial responsibility (proof of insurance) law from $100 to $300.

* Authorize the creation of a statewide insurance verification program that would track down uninsured drivers through their vehicle registrations. Fine revenue, estimated at $2.8 million, 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 police departments 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, one of the law's chief sponsors.

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 -- are uninsured, according to Lamberth and to More than 30,000 Memphis drivers were cited for driving without insurance last year, according to the Memphis City Court Clerk's office. 8,000 of them didn't have a valid license.

Insurance sources indicated the new law 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.

"Had he been taken off the road that day for the exact same thing that he had been pulled over for earlier, he would not have been on the road that day to hit and kill my brother," said Caleb Atwood. "People who drive around without insurance are probably the most dangerous. It's time to tow them."

As for why Pizarro Wesley did not carry insurance the day he severed Stephens' leg, his attorney John Parker said, "He was selling the car that day. He canceled the insurance so he could sell the car. That's my understanding of the situation. He did not know his license was suspended at the time. Why it was suspended, I do not recall."

Wesley would not answer our questions about his suspended license or lack of insurance, except to say his license was reinstated and he now carries insurance.

Chip Washington, spokesperson for the Shelby County Sheriff's Office and for the county's deputy jailers, said, "At the time of this unfortunate incident, he was not on duty. It should also be noted that he is not assigned to the transportation (of inmates). You should also know...he was suspended 10 days without pay."

"That's pathetic," Stephens replied. "He should never have been on the road."

Stephens said his attorney plans to file a motion to have Wesley's license revoked.

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