Tennessee’s Hammer, Nails and Auto Insurance
February 9, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Tennessee is a month into the enforcement of a new law designed to continuously track the insurance status of its drivers. In a classic demonstration of the Ted Frank Rule, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the so-called James Lee Atwood, Jr. law. (For the uninitiated, the rule states that “any law named after the victim of a crime is usually a bad idea.”) The law’s namesake died young, killed in a car accident:
Atwood, 30 of Memphis, was killed in an auto accident July 1, 2014, on Shelby Dr. According to the accident report, 24-year-old Roderick Maggett of Cordova — no insurance, no seat belt and with an unrestrained 6-year-old in the back seat — crossed the center line westbound and smashed head-on into Atwood, heading eastbound. Atwood was killed instantly.
The report indicated an adult passenger in the front seat with Maggett told officers on the scene that both Maggett and he “dozed off.”
Maggett later pleaded to vehicular homicide, a felony, but managed to avoid jail time. Atwood’s family was upset because Maggett had been cited seven hours before the accident for having no insurance. Quoth Atwood’s brother:
“Had he been taken off the road that day for the exact same thing that he had been pulled over for earlier, he would not have been on the road that day to hit and kill my brother,” Caleb Atwood said. “People who drive around without insurance are probably the most dangerous. It’s time to tow them.”
Not so much…drunk drivers are definitely more dangerous, as are reckless drivers, careless drivers, distracted drivers, and drivers who sing too loudly. That shouldn’t be a particularly controversial statement. The above examples actually taking one’s attention off the road. Not having insurance has nothing to do with the actual act of driving. It’s a financial requirement.
Nevertheless, the Assembly decided it was going to prevent James Atwood from ever being killed again:
TN Rep. William Lamberth, (R) Cottontown, and TN Sen. Bill Ketron, (R) Murfreesboro, introduced companion bills that would triple the misdemeanor fine ($100 to $300) on drivers who violate the state’s financial responsibility law (proof of insurance). If passed, the legislation would also require those drivers to pay reinstatement fees on top of the fines once they secure insurance.
The law also created the tracking system, and allowed police departments to tow vehicles that lacked proof of insurance. This apparently made Atwood’s family feel better:
Cochran said what would make her family whole would be the tougher penalties Lamberth and Ketron have outlined in their proposals. “If you’re pulled over, and you can’t prove you have insurance, tow the car,” she said. “Take it right then. Because if they had done that — if we had a law like that here (in Tennessee) — James Lee would still be alive today.”
Here’s the problem: the law will do absolutely nothing to make Tennesseans safer, and in fact might do the opposite. That’s because driving without insurance (and driving without a license) isn’t a criminal issue as such, it’s a financial issue. In most of America, going without a car is not an option. Fair enough, almost all states require drivers to insure their vehicles, but if you can’t afford it, oftentimes the choice is between going without it (and gambling on not getting caught) or not going to work, or not being able to buy groceries, or not being able to get your kids to school.
There isn’t an uninsured driver in America wouldn’t prefer to have a comprehensive policy covering every mishap including inconvenient bird droppings; but if the choice is between insurance premiums and rent money, or insurance premiums and the power bill, or insurance premiums and damn near anything else, the insurance premium is going to lose out every time. For people who can’t afford it, all the new law does is put them deeper in the hole.
This is yet another example of the hammer and nails problem that pervades criminal law. Faced with an intractable problem (lack of money) and a sympathetic family, the Tennessee General Assembly got its hammer out and brought it down with a bang…right on the heads of the nails who could least afford it. And what’s worse is the reason they did it.
James Atwood’s death had nothing to do with insurance. It happened because Roderick Maggett fell asleep at the wheel. One doesn’t necessarily expect logic and clarity from grieving family members like Rhonda Cochran and Caleb Atwood. But we should expect that public servants think through the consequences of the laws they pass; to make sure they actually do some good besides soothing the Atwoods at the expense of the poor.