State steps up efforts on car insurance crackdown

By Michelle Seeber

New Mexico is ready for step two in its effort to increase the number of insured vehicles on its roads — suspending the registration of nearly 300,000 uninsured vehicles.
The suspensions, which will begin next week, are part of a continuing campaign to cut the state’s traditionally high rate of uninsured vehicles.
This means that officers will be able to tell whether a vehicle is insured as soon as they they force drivers to stop, because without insurance, the drivers won’t be able to provide registration.
Officers won’t have to wait for an accident to happen to learn whether a vehicle is insured.
Police typically cannot make a traffic stop on the basis of lack of insurance, Capt. Lonnie Berry of the Portales Police Department said Tuesday.
It’s typically found as a result of an accident,” Berry said.
Kenny Reed, an agent for Farmers Insurance Group, said there’s been a mandatory insurance law for years in New Mexico.
“However…a law…took effect July 1, 2003, that required insurance companies to document insured vehicles (and turn the documentation in) to the state,” Reed said.
If the vehicles aren’t documented, the state suspends registration, Reed said.
“It’s simply putting teeth into the law,” he said.
In the past, New Mexico has ranked among the worst states in the rate of uninsured drivers. The state, which has 1.5 million registered vehicles, now ranks 39th, said Ken Ortiz, manager of the state Motor Vehicles Division’s insurance compliance section.
The state since late 2002 has cut the rate of uninsured drivers from 33 percent to about 18 percent by sending more than 508,000 letters warning drivers to get insurance, Ortiz said.
The national average of uninsured motorists is 14 percent.
The 1999 Legislature passed a law requiring insurance companies to notify the state when a vehicle becomes uninsured. A $2 fee was added to registrations to pay for the program.
The state this month began notifying the owners of about 300,000 uninsured vehicles that their registration will be suspended within 20 days of receiving the notification letter.
It costs $28.50 to get a car reregistered once registration has been suspended.
Driving without insurance or with a suspended registration is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $300. Ortiz said law enforcement officers also have the discretion to tow a car with suspended registration.
In addition to sending out letters, the state has been running radio and television ads in English, Spanish and Navajo promoting the program to get insurance.
New Mexico requires minimum insurance liability amounts of $25,000 for bodily injury or death of one person in an accident; $50,000 for bodily injury or death or two people in one accident; and $10,000 for injury to or destruction of another person’s property.
The state has a $2 million contract with a Minnesota company, Explore Information Services, to manage the database of uninsured drivers. The database feeds information into other databases that police officers can use in the field to see whether a car is insured. Drivers, however, are required to carry proof of insurance.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.