Millions could face roadblock

Times Staff Writer

Millions of uninsured drivers in California could have their license plates yanked or their cars immobilized as part of a crackdown being considered by Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

Poizner is huddling with his political advisors and consulting potential allies about putting an initiative on the November 2008 ballot. The measure would give law enforcement broad new powers to go after those who flout the law by driving without insurance.

The Department of Insurance is unsure exactly how many of California’s 23.2 million licensed drivers don’t buy insurance. Estimates range from a low of 3.2 million to a high of 5.7 million. At least 1.4 million of the uninsured drivers are in Los Angeles County, according to the department.

Poizner declined to comment on his plans because they still are sketchy. But Jennifer Kerns, his spokeswoman, says he “is exploring all avenues, including going to the people with a ballot initiative, to take uninsured drivers off the road.”


The issue of what to do about uninsured drivers has divided lawmakers and voters for years.

Wayne Johnson, the campaign consultant who helped Poizner win his position in 2006 and had just been rehired to plot strategy on uninsured drivers, said a ballot initiative would probably be popular.

“There’s no reason that anyone who can afford a car or gas can’t buy insurance if they are good drivers,” said Johnson, noting that Poizner has been expanding a state program that provides basic coverage in Los Angeles and most other counties for as little as $350 a year.

Advocates of the low-cost program and the possible initiative contend that it’s unfair that law-abiding motorists end up paying higher premiums because of damage done by uninsured drivers. Opponents counter that the measure would disproportionately affect poor people and make it even harder for them to get and keep jobs.

Even the relatively modest cost of the state’s low-cost auto policies could prove too much for a poor family of three living on $723 a month in welfare payments, said Mike Herald of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, a Los Angeles-based legal services group that deals with health, welfare and housing issues.

“Twenty-five dollars a month means a week of groceries for some people,” says Herald. “It seems to me we’re asking people to make difficult choices and penalizing the poorest in the state because they don’t have enough money. That seems pretty wrong-headed.”

“Making it harder for the poor to drive isn’t going to help the uninsured motorist problem,” adds Harvey Rosenfield, an advocate with the Foundation for Consumer and Taxpayer Rights in Santa Monica. “All it will do is expand the market for stolen license plates.”

Of course, not all uninsured are poor, Rosenfield acknowledges. But middle-class and wealthy drivers are less likely to go without insurance, in part because they could lose their homes and other property if a court finds them at fault in a major accident.

Under the state’s existing mandatory insurance law, police officers can issue tickets to drivers they stop if the driver’s name is not found in a Department of Motor Vehicles database of insured motorists and the driver fails to show a paper proof-of-insurance certificate.

Uninsured drivers involved in accidents can lose their licenses for a year. Drivers whose registration has been suspended because they don’t have insurance can be fined more than $1,000.

But police will only seize the vehicle if a driver does not have a valid license and there is no other licensed driver available or if the car’s registration is suspended.

The low-cost policies, available since July 2000, haven’t been big sellers. Although sales have picked up since Poizner took office in January, only about 43,000 of the low-cost policies are in force. The policies are available for individuals making as much as $25,500 a year.

“The program has not lived up to its full potential,” says Sam Sorich of the Assn. of California Insurance Cos., a trade group in Sacramento whose members issue some of the low-cost policies.

Poizner blames its limited success on lack of enforcement of the mandatory insurance law, spokeswoman Kerns said.

Political analysts say that little-known Poizner, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who sold a high-tech business for $1 billion, may be trying to craft the initiative in part to catapult himself to a higher elected office.

“It’s a time-honored way for political figures in California to increase their name recognition,” says Darry Sragow, a Democratic Party strategist.

Despite his low profile, even in Sacramento, the politically moderate Poizner is being touted by Republican insiders as their party’s best and perhaps only viable candidate for governor in 2010. Democrats could put up half a dozen strong candidates, including Jerry Brown, the charismatic former governor and current attorney general.

Over the years, politicians have had mixed luck using initiatives to advance their careers. In 1990, former Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp sponsored three initiatives only to lose the Democratic primary election for governor. In 1994, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson put Proposition 187, a measure that would have denied services to undocumented immigrants, on the same ballot that he rode to reelection. The emotionally charged measure won but was struck down by the courts.

Two years later, Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush was reelected in part by pushing Proposition 213, which prohibited uninsured motorists from collecting pain-and-suffering damages in accidents in which they were not at fault. It passed, but Quackenbush later resigned amid a scandal.

Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State, said a pet ballot initiative wasn’t a surefire way for a politician to get a boost.

“Sometimes they work well, and sometimes they backfire, depending on the popularity of the initiative,” he said. “It’s always hard to know whether someone is using his bully pulpit to advance public policy, or whether in advancing public policy he’s trying to get a larger bully pulpit.”