BY PHILLIP RAWLS
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The owners of the 900,000 Alabama vehicles without liability insurance stand a better chance of getting caught starting Jan. 1.
That's when the state will start enforcing a law designed to crack down on motorists who don't abide byAlabama's mandatory insurance law. It is one of several laws that take effect with the new year.
A new online insurance verification system, overseen by the state Revenue Department, will check insurance companies' records within a few seconds to see if a motorist has insurance. County license plate officials will use it when issuing or renewing a tag. Police will use it when issuing tickets. And the Revenue Department will do random computer checks to find motorists who have dropped their insurance. The new system is the result of a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur.
The Insurance Research Council estimates that 22 percent of Alabama's more than 4 million private vehicles don't abide by the mandatory insurance law, which is the sixth-highest rate of any state.
Magee said her goal for the new system is to get that figure below 10 percent.
That would be a relief for staffers at the state Insurance Department. "Our number one or number two complaint every year is: I got hit by someone without insurance. Why is this happening?" Chief of Staff Ragan Ingram said.
Under the current law, a motorist can buy insurance when it's time to renew a car tag and get an insurance card to show officials. Then the motorist can quit paying for the insurance after one month, but still have the insurance card to show police if stopped for speeding. With the new system, the police officer can learn the status of the driver's insurance while checking the car tag. Then the officer can write two tickets: one for speeding and one for driving without insurance.
Magee said the cost of driving without insurance can be more expensive than buying insurance. A first offense can result in a fine of up to $500 and subsequent offenses can go up to $1,000. It can also result in suspension of the vehicle's registration. Reinstating it will cost $200 for a first offense and $400 for subsequent offenses.
Magee said Alabama's biggest auto insurance companies, State Farm, Alfa and Allstate, are set for the new system, and 58 of 67 counties were already online by mid-December. She predicts all counties will be operational by Jan. 1.
She does expect an unintended consequence with implementation. She said a clerk in a tag office will have to verify that the name on a vehicle's title and the name on the liability insurance are the same. She said some people don't change the names on a vehicle title when a family situation changes, and that will cause a problem.
She expects the most frequent example to be where a widow is driving a car still titled in her late husband's name, but she's the one with the liability insurance. In those cases, the widow will need to correct the title to her name. Magee said that will protect the widow later on because the vehicle must be correctly titled if she decides to sell or trade it.
Some of the other new laws taking effect Jan. 1 will:
—Give the state Insurance Department the authority to require the fingerprinting of new insurance agents. Ingram said the aim is to do criminal background checks on new agents like the state already does on new teachers.
—Make it easier for Alabamians who are adopting children in a foreign country. The state Department of Public Health said Alabama residents adopting a child in a foreign country may no longer need to re-adopt the child inAlabama before they can get a Certificate of Foreign Birth. The new law allows the department's registrar of vital statistics to issue a certificate of foreign birth without re-adoption if the parents have several documents, including the certified copy of the child's foreign birth certificate and a certified English translation.
—Try to crack down on human trafficking by requiring bars, strip clubs, airports, train stations, bus stations and some other businesses to post signs notifying people how to contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline. The signs are aimed at helping foreign women who are brought into the United States in anticipation of a real job, but then forced into prostitution.