Contrary to popular belief, it does not always require the services of a well-paid lobbyist to get a bill introduced in the state Legislature. Sometimes, all it takes is an unemployed truck driver with an automobile insurance problem.
This particular truck driver could not get his automobile insurance renewed because his insurance company found out by buying information from the state Department of Motor Vehicles that he had been involved in two accidents within a year's time.
But neither accident was his fault. The other driver was cited by law enforcement officers in both cases.
Many California drivers have faced hefty insurance premium increases or cancellation of their policies because of accident information obtained from the DMV. The department grosses about $9 million annually selling this kind of information.
What sets the Fairfield truck driver apart is that he got mad enough to tell his legislator, Assemblyman Thomas M. Hannigan (D-Fairfield), about what happened to him.
As a result, Hannigan introduced a bill to prohibit the DMV from releasing information on traffic accidents on a driver who is not cited or found to be at fault.
It was a perfect example of how high school civics classes say the legislative system is supposed to work: a constituent has a problem and goes to his representative, who introduces a bill to correct it.
Hannigan's bill got off to a good start. It recently passed the Assembly with ease on a 56-11 vote and is scheduled for a July 9 hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. But it faces a tough fight in the upper house.
Lobbyists for automobile insurance companies are gearing up to try to defeat the measure or make changes that would water it down. "They're waiting for me over there," Hannigan said.
Recalling how he came to introduce the bill, the Northern California lawmaker said, "When we looked into the situation, we found that what happens in those cases is that the insurance company makes a unilateral judgment that because an individual is in more than one accident within a specific period of time, they are a higher risk driver.
"Therefore, they either increase the insurance premium or cancel the insurance policy at the next anniversary date. And I think that's unfair."
The truck driver who started the ball rolling on the bill requested that he not be identified by name when contacted for details on his problem.
'Had Enough Trouble'
"I had enough trouble getting new insurance as it is," he told The Times.
A Hannigan aide said the truck driver was involved in two accidents in 1984, being hit by another driver who was making a lane change, and being rear-ended at a traffic light. In both cases, the other driver was cited.
James E. Prosser, who represents State Farm Insurance, which has 1.5 million automobile insurance policyholders in California, is one of the lobbyists working against the bill. In a letter to Hannigan, Prosser wrote:
"From an underwriting standpoint, data regarding past accident involvement of particular operators, as well as arrests and convictions for traffic accidents, are clearly related to the nature of the risk.
"Prohibiting access to this relevant information will only result in improper classification of some risks. Consequently, the better risk may end up subsidizing the poorer risk.
"Similarly, denying access to accident records . . . may prompt some applicants to provide inaccurate or incomplete information regarding prior accidents."
Another foe, Edward Levy of the Assn. of California Insurance Companies, said, "In most traffic accidents, the police won't even show up to investigate unless a car is disabled and unable to run or there is a personal injury.
"They don't have the time, so the only source of information on the fact of an accident is the DMV report."
State law requires all drivers to file a report with the DMV if they are involved in an accident resulting in more than $500 in property damage or in personal injury or death, within 10 days of the accident.
Reports on traffic accidents investigated by law enforcement officers also go into DMV files.
The department receives about 15 to 20 letters a month from motorists complaining that their insurance companies have either refused to renew their policies or are increasing their premiums based on information from DMV records.
Those who write the department are told that state law allows release of all accident records, regardless of who was at fault. Although the department keeps the records for about five years, they are available to insurance companies for only 37 months.
Letter writers also are told that they can submit a statement of 100 words or less telling their side of the accident story and that it will go to anyone who buys a copy of their driving record.
The department is neutral on the Hannigan bill, said Leonard M. Bleier, DMV legislative liaison.
Automobile insurance companies pay between 80 cents and $2 per name for the information they buy from the DMV, depending upon how much data they give in the request, how much more data they want from the department, and the method used for obtaining it.
No Complete Records
There is no way of telling how many California drivers are adversely affected by the accident information because no one keeps overall automobile insurance records.
But Hannigan's bill has attracted grass-roots attention.
A West Covina businessman recently wrote Hannigan a letter expressing support for his bill and telling his own story:
"My driving record is excellent. Yet last November, Company X refused to renew my automobile insurance on the basis of an accident that had no damage, no injuries and wasn't my fault--after 14 years of premiums on both auto and homeowner's insurance with no claims.
'They Don't Care'
"When I complained, I found out their president doesn't see critical mail; there is no appeal procedure; they don't care.
"As a result, I can't get suitable insurance on one of my cars at all and thus can't drive it. The premiums on my other two cars are $400 higher than last year's premiums on all three."
Contacted for more details on his accident, the businessman also asked that his name be kept confidential, saying, "Insurance companies aren't above retribution."
Although opposed by the automobile insurance companies, the Hannigan bill is supported by the Teamsters Union and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, declined to predict what will happen to the Hannigan bill in his committee.
"I really haven't been exposed to it (the need for the legislation)," Lockyer said. "I'm neutral and waiting to be educated."