Calif. Wants to Crack Down on Uninsured Motorists

November 18, 2007

California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner is reportedly exploring the possibility of a ballot measure next year designed to get uninsured motorists off the state’s roads and highways.

Industry sources confirmed the development initially reported in newspaper accounts quoting a consultant who advised Poizner on his successful 2006 commissioner campaign, Wayne Johnson of Sacramento, Calif.-based JohnsonClark Associates.

According to the articles, some of the provisions of the ballot measure would allow authorities to remove license plates from vehicles operated by uninsured motorists. Also reportedly under consideration is a provision to immobilize uninsured vehicles with the so-called “Denver boot,” which locks a vehicle’s wheels and prevents the car from being moved.

“He’s looking at a couple of different ways to put teeth into the financial responsibility law” that requires all California drivers to either have minimum liability coverage in force or to deposit funds with the state to cover potential liability claims, said Mike D’Arelli, executive vice president of the Sacramento-based Alliance of Insurance Agents and Brokers.

Political pundits believe Poizner hopes to leverage a ballot measure to increase his name recognition among voters ahead of the 2010 gubernatorial election. Poizner is already seen by some as a leading contender for the Republican nomination for the office.

Neither Johnson nor Poizner’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Kerns, responded to the Insurance Journal’s inquiries regarding the proposed initiative.

Poizner’s desire to go the route of a ballot initiative makes sense, D’Arelli explained, because legislation proposing punitive measures to deter driving while uninsured would be unlikely to get beyond its first committee hearing because it would be seen as too stringent on low-income individuals.

Insurer trade groups, which have historically opposed state requirements that all drivers must be insured, haven’t taken a position on a possible ballot measure by Poizner.

“We are still gathering details on the proposal and look forward to seeing a final version before making any final decisions,” said Rex Frazier, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California. “We have long-standing opposition to mandated auto insurance, so no proposal to increase enforcement of mandatory auto insurance will garner much support among our membership.”

Industry insiders speculate that in addition to boosting his name recognition in advance of the 2010 elections, Poizner could be frustrated with low take-up rates in California’s seven-year-old Low Cost Auto Program.

Administered by the California Assigned Risk Auto Plan and underwritten by admitted California auto insurers, the legislatively created program offers coverage for good drivers earning less than 250 percent of federal poverty guidelines ($25,525 for a single person, $34,225 for two persons and $51,625 for a family of four). Annual premiums for the low-cost program run $300 to $400 a year — less in some counties — for minimum liability coverage as well as optional uninsured motorist and medical payment coverages.

According to a Department of Insurance statement on Oct. 26 announcing that the program was expanded to all California counties, 35,000 policies have been issued during the life of the program. Yet the Alliance said only about one-third of that was in force at the end of September.

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