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Michigan to crack down on uninsured drivers

By Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

DEARBORN – Lawmakers are moving to crack down on Michigan's uninsured drivers after a Detroit News report revealed that as many as 1.1 million of them are driving up premiums and medical costs while the state has done little to track them.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm will work with Michigan's Secretary of State to upgrade the state's computer system, which is currently incapable of tracking uninsured motorists, Deputy Press Secretary Mary Dettloff said Tuesday. At least 32 states have developed ways to verify that drivers have insurance.

And state Rep. Gary Woronchak, R-Dearborn, unveiled legislation Tuesday that would double the fines motorists pay for insurance violations. Michigan motorists pay a $200 to $500 fine if they're caught without insurance, far less than the cost of most insurance premiums.

Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land already has met with Michigan law enforcement agencies to find ways to share information about drivers' insurance status, Dettloff said.

"Their (computer) system just isn't nimble enough to do the kind of tracking and information sharing with law enforcement that needs to be done, so we're looking to see if there's a way we can upgrade the technology in Secretary of State offices," Dettloff said.

"We're obviously dealing with a very tight budget, but we'll do what we can to address their technology needs."

Woronchak said uninsured motorists could be fined from $400 to $1,000 under a bill he plans to introduce in the Legislature next week. He said the bill is in response The News' report that drivers who are insured pick up the tens of million of dollars in costs associated with accidents involving uninsured drivers.

The News, in its report Sunday, found that prices for insurance are highest in Detroit's inner-city neighborhoods, where as many as 59 percent of motorists lack auto coverage. The average premium increased nearly 15 percent last year in southwest Detroit, compared with 9 percent in Warren.

Insured drivers in the state paid $65 million in surcharges just to cover the medical bills of passengers in uninsured cars in 2001, up from $45 million in 1998. The actual cost of Michigan's uninsured drivers is much higher, because medical bills for the drivers themselves often are picked up by other insurance programs and hospitals, which ultimately pass along the costs to their customers.

"The penalties are so low that people are willing to risk paying them because it's so much cheaper than buying insurance," Woronchak said. "Maybe raising the penalties will encourage people to do what's right.

"The threat of that hanging over people's heads might just encourage them to go and get the insurance."

Rep. Ken Daniels, D-Detroit, agrees that more should be done to enforce Michigan's mandatory insurance law, but he said people will continue to drive without insurance until the state does something to bring down the cost of premiums. Daniels is among state Democrats who have introduced a package of bills to stop what they describe as redlining and price gouging by auto and home insurance companies.

The term "redlining" was coined for the once-common practice of denying insurance to distinct classes of customers. It is now illegal for companies to refuse customers based on race or ethnicity.

"Everybody should be covered, but insurance companies have to make it more affordable," Daniels said. "If Detroiters enjoyed the same rates as our suburban counterparts, you'd see more folks with insurance.

Rep. Larry Julian, R-Lennon, chair of the House Insurance Committee, wouldn't comment on how Woronchak's bill would fare with state lawmakers until he's had a chance to review the specifics. But he said something needs to be done to enforce Michigan's no-fault insurance law.

"We have to get a message to these people. If the penalties are stiff enough, than maybe people will say it's cheaper to get insurance," Julian said. "People are only hurting themselves by not insuring themselves."