Beginning in January, county treasurers will no longer have to rely on a driver’s word for having liability insurance when licensing or renewing registration on a vehicle.
Treasurers will be using a new state computer verification system, which law enforcement agencies began using this year, to automatically check to see whether a driver has insurance.
Max Lenington, Yellowstone County treasurer, said the county has been testing the new Montana Insurance Verification System. So far, so good, he said.
“It works surprisingly well, but we’re not under duress,” Lenington said. The county’s tests have been with insured drivers, he said.
While counties will begin using the system in January, no one will be denied registration or renewal until some issues are fixed, said Brenda Nordlund, administrator of the Motor Vehicle Division in the state Department of Justice.
“We know we need more time refining this system,” Nordlund said.
Some of the issues that need more work include how to handle mail-in and online renewals; commercially insured vehicles, like those insured by farms or ranches; and motorists who move to Montana and have policies that originated out of state, Nordlund said.
Nordlund didn’t know when all of the issues will be resolved but said it will require legislation in the 2013 session and continued work with county partners and the system vendor.
The verification system is intended to help reduce the number of uninsured drivers in the state.
The state is trying to “eliminate the possibility that people are going to pretend they have insurance when they don’t. We will know more quickly now in real time whether you have insurance when it matters,” Nordlund said.
If a driver renews his registration, then cancels his insurance and gets stopped, the insurance card “is not going to work anymore,” Nordlund said, because law enforcement can run a verification check.
In 2009, according to the state Department of Justice, 162,000 of the more than 1.3 million licensed passenger vehicles, heavy trucks and motor homes on the road were uninsured. The figures are based on information from the Insurance Research Council.
Accidents caused by uninsured motorists drive up costs for insured drivers, officials said. If an uninsured driver hits someone with insurance, claims filed by the insured driver with his insurance company can potentially raise premiums.
Driving without insurance is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum $500 fine and 10 days in jail for a first offense.
The 2009 Legislature passed the law creating the verification system, and the 2011 Legislature delayed its start for county treasurers until 2013. The system costs about $540,000 a year to operate and is funded by a $1.80-per-vehicle annual increase in license plate fees.
The Montana Highway Patrol began using the system in May, with other law enforcement agencies getting access to the system in August.
Law enforcement’s use already is having an effect, Nordlund said.
“I think we definitely have a heightened awareness of what has been a longtime law,” she said.
Requiring vehicle insurance has been on the books since 1979.
Under the new system, insurance companies electronically provide information on insured drivers to the Motor Vehicle Division. Law enforcement officers and county treasurers can check the system to verify insurance.
Lenington said the system will tell the county whether insurance is “confirmed” or “unconfirmed.”
Marty Pryor, county motor vehicle supervisor, said the county will try to give drivers notice if a driver is “unconfirmed” for insurance when it mails renewal cards.
More than 50 percent of Yellowstone County drivers renew by mail or online, Pryor said. More than 200,000 vehicles are registered in the county.