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NASHVILLE, TN (WMC) -

The most aggressive package of penalties against Tennessee's nearly 1 million uninsured drivers cleared its second hurdle, putting it one vote closer to a full debate in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

Tuesday, the Tennessee House Government Operations Committee passed House Bill 0606. In its current form, it would:

* Raise the misdemeanor fine for violating Tennessee's financial responsibility (proof of insurance) law from $100 to $250.

* Create a statewide insurance verification program that would track down uninsured drivers through their vehicle registration.

* Allow county clerks to suspend a driver's registration if the driver does not comply with the financial responsibility law and assess a $300 reinstatement fee.

* Give Tennessee police departments the discretion to tow the vehicles of drivers cited for violation of the financial responsibility law.

"We had over 40,000 crashes last year, in which one party or the other, or sometimes both, were uninsured, so this is a significant update to our code," said TN Rep. William Lamberth, (R) Sumner County, the chief sponsor of the house bill.

Tennessee passed a mandatory proof of liability insurance law in 1977. It requires Tennessee drivers to carry minimum levels of liability: $25,000 for one injury or death, $50,000 for all injuries or death and $15,000 for property damage. But the penalty for violating the law is a misdemeanor fine of $100.

As a result, Tennessee is sixth in the nation for the number of uninsured drivers. More than 20 percent of its driving population -- nearly a million drivers -- is uninsured, according toPropertyCasualty360.com.

Tuesday's committee passage of the bill will send it to the Tennessee House Finance, Ways & Means committee. That vote has yet to be scheduled, along with a pending vote in the Tennessee Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee.

If it becomes law, the bill will be named in honor of James Lee Atwood Jr.

Last July, an uninsured driver killed the 30-year-old Memphis man -- who was insured -- in an accident on Shelby Dr. in Southeast Memphis. Police pulled over 24-year-old Roderick Maggett of Cordova earlier that day and cited him for driving without proof of insurance. Without the authority to detain Maggett or his vehicle, officers let him drive off -- only to crash into and kill Atwood Jr. seven hours later. Cited a second time that day for driving without proof of insurance, Maggett was also charged with vehicular homicide. A Shelby County grand jury is considering the case for indictment.

"These lawbreakers who don't carry insurance...who just walk away with no consequences...continue because they are fully aware that the current law is weak, and they won't be held accountable for their actions," said Atwood Jr.'s mother, Rhonda Cochran, in testimony before the Tennessee House Insurance & Banking Committee on March 24.

The Tennessee Department of Revenue would implement and administer the insurance verification database. The fines and fees generated by uninsured drivers would pay for the program, according to the legislation.

However, the tracking database would not be implemented before Jan. 1, 2017.

"We have to have time to develop an analogous system to vehicle registration," said Richard Roberts, the revenue department's commissioner. "We will not eliminate the idea of having a third-party develop it. For example, we don't want to hire extra state workers when a private contractor could handle that, but the legislation gives us that flexibility."

Posted 9:15 AM  View Comments

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