published Saturday, December 29th, 2012

Hamilton County clerk pushes car insurance database

As Tennessee's state Legislature pursues better ways to enforce vehicle insurance laws, Hamilton County's clerk is pushing for the state to adopt a database that would keep tabs on drivers' insurance coverage.

State financial responsibility laws require drivers to carry liability insurance, but the law is essentially based on an "honor system," only enforced when motorists are stopped by law enforcement or involved in an accident.

Tightening the law's enforcement has been a perennial debate among state lawmakers hoping to cut down on uninsured drivers. Several plans could require drivers to show proof of their insurance before receiving their titles at the county clerk's office -- a process Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles said could be a major burden for the office to take on, crippling the offices' mail and Internet services.

"We're on the front lines here," said Knowles. "The [lawmakers] are trying to do what's best, but they don't always understand what we on the front lines have to cope with. I just want to suggest a workable plan."

Knowles has been working with local lawmakers to deal with the issue for several years. But at a meeting with legislators earlier this month, he again pressed for a more digital-age solution: A state-run electronic database clerks can check before titling a vehicle.

Knowles said the law change he is submitting is based on Georgia's electronic insurance verification system, which was enacted in 2003.

Georgia now has a database of all motor vehicles and the liability insurance carried by their drivers, which is now the only valid proof of insurance for Georgia drivers who are pulled over within the state.

Modeling a new Tennessee law on Georgia's program would keep Tennessee from having to "reinvent the wheel," Knowles said in a statement.

If lawmakers approved such a system, Knowles said, enacting it would require state-approved insurance agencies immediately to transmit their clients' compliance with the law to the Department of Revenue's database.

Information would identify the owner's name, vehicle make/model, vehicle identification number and coverage dates.

If a policy is cancelled, notification would be transmitted to state agencies for appropriate action. Such a database also would allow tag offices and law enforcement to check insurance status at any time, Knowles said.

"It would be a seamless process for motorists visiting our office or taking advantage of the mail and Internet registration options I have put in place," Knowles said.

State Sen. Bo Watson and state Rep. Vince Dean spearheaded a bill last year to require drivers' insurance to be verified before annual tag renewals. But the bill never got any momentum, Watson said.

"Not all counties have the same technological sophistication we may have in Hamilton County," Watson said. "When you take on these bills, you have to think about all of the counties involved. For some it may have been a financial challenge to try to adopt this kind of system."

Watson said he plans to reintroduce the bill during this upcoming legislative session.

"Technology is always changing," he said. "Perhaps we can get a better discussion than we got last time."

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