By Alex Glenn
Although car insurance is required in 49 states and the District of Columbia, nearly 30 million Americans choose to drive uninsured. And, surprising as it may be, the majority manage to stay off Johnny Law's radar. But perhaps not for long.
The growing popularity of automatic license plate recognition systems, which allow law enforcement real-time access to uninsured-motorist databases in their state, may soon change how police catch uninsured drivers. In some places, it already has.
Police get a leg up
Car insurance companies have maintained state databases of uninsured drivers for years. However, they haven't always been much help to law enforcement.
"Currently, 33 states operate a database of uninsured drivers," says Alex Hageli, director of personal lines policy at Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, an industry group. "But the majority don't give police instant access. Most states still make their officers call the 1-800 number on drivers' insurance cards to verify the policy -- pretty ridiculous in this day and age."
The process isn't quite as tedious everywhere, though. A growing group of states, which began eight years ago with Wyoming and now includes nine others, allows police to use mobile, high-speed cameras, called automatic license plate recognition or ALPR cameras, that take the grunt work out of finding uninsured drivers.
"Once you're pulled over, police can run your plates and the inquiry is done instantaneously," Hageli says. This means even if drivers flash a phony insurance card or one from a defunct policy, officers can scan your vehicle and check the state database to see if it's actually insured. This allows them to check far more vehicles during a shift than they could otherwise.
It's important to note that all states still consider uninsured driving a secondary violation, not a primary one. In other words, it can't be the initial reason police pull you over.
Early impact of ALPR systems
Historically, the percentage of uninsured drivers has been difficult to reduce. Roughly 13% of drivers are uninsured, according to the Insurance Research Council, only a modest improvement over the last two decades (14.6% in 2005 and 14.2% in 1995). Even with ALPR systems, that figure may not dip drastically anytime soon. "It's a gradual change, but I expect it to get down to 9% or 10% eventually," Hageli says.
While the impact may be slow at the national level, some states are seeing more dramatic effects. This is particularly evident in places where uninsured driving rates are highest. Texas, one of the first states to introduce an ALPR system, called TexasSure, has seen its uninsured driving rate drop from 22% in 2009 to 11% in 2015.
And in Michigan, where over 20% of motorists lack coverage, ALPR technology has proved a major boon to police in cracking down on this issue. Officers handed out nearly 15% more citations for uninsured driving between September 2014 and March 2015 than during that same time span the year prior.
The steep price of driving without auto insurance
As police heighten their efforts to identify uninsured drivers, you might wonder just how much getting caught without coverage would cost. First-time convictions often run in the $500 to $1,000 range, and may go as high as $5,000 in West Virginia. There could also be hundreds of dollars in fees associated with reinstating a suspended license or registration.
Yet perhaps the most damaging consequence is the increased cost of future car insurance. "In some cases, insurers might not write you a policy at all," Hageli says. "But if they do, they'll charge a lot."
If you can't get traditional auto insurance because of an uninsured-driving conviction, you might need to buy high-risk car insurance instead. As you'd expect, these policies tend to carry higher rates than standard plans.
Driving uninsured isn't legal (or, ultimately, frugal)
The impulse to drop car insurance to save money is certainly understandable. But it's also short-sighted. The amount you'd save initially likely won't outweigh what you could owe in citations, fees and higher car insurance premiums if you're caught -- not to mention your exposure to costly lawsuits and repair bills if you cause an accident.
As advances continue in how police catch uninsured drivers -- both Tennessee and Mississippi should be adding their own ALPR systems in 2016, according to Hageli -- it will only get harder for motorists to hide.
For a safer way to trim insurance costs, consider improving the way you shop for coverage. You can stay on the right side of the law and find a policy that fits your budget with NerdWallet's car insurance comparison tool.
Alex Glenn is a staff writer for NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via iStock.