Since Oct. 1, the Department of Motor Vehicles has notified more than 180,000 car owners in California that it is moving to suspend their auto registrations because their cars are uninsured.
Hundreds of thousands more suspension warnings are expected to go out in the months ahead as the state's latest crackdown on uninsured motorists moves into high gear.
The suspension notices follow the department's first systematic comparison of a computerized roster of registered car owners with an electronic list of insured vehicles that is updated by insurance companies every time a driver buys, renews or cancels a policy.
"Driving without insurance is against the law, and now the department has the ability and the authority to suspend registration if we don't receive proof of coverage," DMV spokesman Mike Marando said.
The effort, if successful, could be costly for drivers who break the law because they can't afford insurance or simply refuse to buy it, experts say.
But the move probably would bring down the price of insurance for many California drivers, who pay higher premiums to protect themselves in the event they are hit by uninsured drivers.
Nowhere would the effect be greater than in Los Angeles County, where an estimated 23% of drivers are uninsured, compared with 14.3% in the state at large. According to 2003 California Department of Insurance statistics, the most recent available, Los Angeles County had 1.4 million uninsured motorists.
About 15% of accidents in California involve uninsured motorists even though driving without insurance has been illegal in the state for nearly 40 years.
Suspending registrations may be a harsh punishment for low-income drivers who need their cars to get to work, but something forceful must be done, said Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a San Francisco-based consumer advocacy group.
"It's not fair when people are spending money on auto insurance and other people are driving without it," Bach said.
On Oct. 1 the DMV was authorized by the Legislature to begin a systematic review of the 22.4 million private cars, light trucks and motorcycles registered in the state. The department is using its new powers to check the insurance status of car owners as they apply for registration or renewal.
A motorists who is given a suspension warning has 30 days to buy insurance and avoid the suspension.
Ignoring the DMV notice could lead to big trouble. If a motorist is cited for driving a car with its registration suspended, the vehicle can be seized. Fines can exceed $1,000.
What's more, uninsured drivers who are involved in accidents can lose their licenses for one year and be subjected to civil damages to compensate injured parties or to repair property.
It's bad enough not to have insurance, but "if your car is not registered, you've got a very significant additional problem," state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi said.
California passed its first mandatory auto insurance law in 1970, but the sanction lacked teeth and was enforced only spottily. In 1997, the Legislature toughened the statute by requiring vehicle owners to present paper certificates from their insurance companies when registering or renewing registrations.
The 1997 law, though credited with significantly cutting the number of uninsured drivers getting in accidents, had a major loophole. A car owner could buy insurance just before registering and then cancel the policy or stop paying premiums after a couple of months.
Lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger upped the ante in 2004 with a law that required insurance companies to report electronically to the DMV by the beginning of this year. That computerized information became available to courts and law enforcement agencies July 1. After Oct. 1, the first notices of possible suspensions started going out.
DMV officials say that for the first time they'll be able to get an accurate count of the California car owners driving without insurance. They expect that number to plummet now that the 1997 loophole has been closed.
"The days of canceling a policy after getting your plates and registration are over," said the DMV's Marando.
DMV officials, insurance executives and some consumer advocates say they expect the move to help lower most people's overall premiums.
They note that uninsured-motorist coverage, which protects a car owner from medical bills or property damage caused by people who drive without insurance, currently accounts for close to 20% of the average insurance bill in California.
A reduction in the cost of uninsured-motorist coverage would mark further good news for car owners, whose rates have been declining steadily in recent years because of safer cars, more-conservative lawsuit awards and the aging of the baby boom generation into its statistically safest driving years.
The average driver in California, once considered a high-cost insurance state, paid $832 a year, just below the national average, for auto insurance in 2003, the last period for which national figures were available, according to a recent report by the National Assn. of Insurance Commissioners.
Premiums have continued to fall in the last three years, with most major California carriers announcing double-digit percentage reductions.
Many low-income drivers, some of whom still can't afford insurance, could begin taking advantage of a state program that offers low-cost auto insurance policies.
The coverage, which was expanded by the Legislature as part of the 2004 uninsured- motorist law, is now available for qualified buyers in most urban counties, including Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino. The policies generally cost less than $400 a year for bare-bones liability coverage.
With an increase in registration suspensions expected, the California Highway Patrol stands ready to back them up, spokesman Tom Marshall said.
"If people don't get this taken care of," he said, "we certainly will be writing tickets for it."