By STEVE WILAJ
Shootings and robberies may snare the most headlines, but it’s the unlicensed and uninsured drivers causing the most headaches, especially for police and judges, city officials said.
“The No. 1 crime in the city of Youngstown is people driving without a license, absolutely without a doubt,” said Judge Elizabeth A. Kobly of Youngstown Municipal Court. It’s a crime she deals with “at least 10 times a day.”
Police Chief Rod Foley calls the problem of unlicensed and uninsured drivers an “epidemic.”
In fact, Ohio is in a five-way tie for seventh place in the nation, with 16 percent of drivers behind the wheel without insurance, according to a 2011 study by the Insurance Research Council, the most-recent year such a study was undertaken.
Joining Ohio are Indiana, Washington, Arkansas and Georgia.
And, to add the financial costs of driving, the cost of auto insurance in Ohio will increase substantially before the end of this year.
Ohio requires drivers to have minimum liability coverage of $12,500 for injury and death for one person; $25,000 for two or more people; and $7,500 for property damage.
Starting Dec. 22, however, those minimums increase to $25,000, $50,000 and $25,000, respectively.
“If people driving couldn’t afford [auto] insurance before, it’s going to get worse,” said Timothy Cearfoss of Youngstown, an agent with American Family Insurance.
Cearfoss estimates that as many as 45 percent of Youngstown’s drivers are without a license, insurance or both.
The average cost of drivers’ insurance should rise proportionally to the liability coverage increases — by about 20 percent to 25 percent, Cearfoss said.
He also said the changes are a positive start because of the naturally higher costs of vehicles since the current rates were set 44 years ago.
Both Cearfoss and Judge Kobly, however, say there is a negative impact.
“If you have to choose between food on the table and [driver’s] insurance, people are going to put food on the table,” Judge Kobly said. “And they’re going to let their insurance lapse, and when the insurance lapses, here we go again. They get caught up in that web.”
The “web” she refers to is when people continue to drive without licenses and insurance even after several convictions.
“We have people in here that are not only convicted of this one time, twice or three times, but we have people that habitually drive without a license, and they get convicted 13, 14, 15 times,” Judge Kobly said. “By then, they owe so much money in reinstatement fees that they can never dig themselves out of that hole, so they keep on driving anyway.”
As a result, accidents involving these drivers put more financial stress on insured drivers.
Ohioans have the option of buying uninsured- motorist coverage, which has an average cost of $40 to $50 per year. This replaces the liability coverage the other drivers don’t possess, Cearfoss said.
“A lot of times, [unlicensed] individuals have pretty serious driving records with previous arrests or driving under suspensions,” Foley said. “So they’re high-risk drivers.”
Since 1953, Ohio has required drivers to carry auto insurance for injuries and property damage. Meanwhile, police are required to check for proof of driver’s insurance at crashes and traffic stops. Those who don’t produce those insurance cards must then show proof of insurance to a court or to the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
Even with these procedures, Foley said city police officers have struggled to keep unlicensed and uninsured drivers off the road.
“We used to be able to cite people for not having insurance, but they got rid of that law,” Foley said. “Now, we just write on the ticket that they don’t have insurance, and the judges do what they’ve got to do.”
Judge Kobly makes an effort to help unlicensed drivers with her SLIP Court — Suspended License Intervention Program — which she established in 2002.
According to the municipal court website, the program is for people who face jail because of driving without a license.
Participants are screened by the court’s probation department and are given an opportunity to plead guilty and enter the program if eligibility requirements are met.
Charges are dismissed for participants who comply with the program and obtain a driver’s license. Those who fail to obtain a license or commit a new offense while in the program are sentenced on the original offense.
For information on the program, call 330-742-8853.
“There’s so many different ways that you can lose your license, and there’s so much red tape,” Judge Kobly said. “I’ve seen people in here that owe $10,000 in reinstatement fees. So it’s a problem. The more people continue to drive, the deeper that financial hole they’re digging for themselves, and we try to help them through” with SLIP.
As for keeping uninsured motorists and those driving under suspension off the road, Foley and Cearfoss said that will be difficult.
Cearfoss suggested Ohio adopt a system that allows the BMV to check for insurance at the purchase of a license, similar to procedures done in Florida and Texas.
“I don’t know if it’s the answer, but it would be relatively easy for the BMV to enforce,” Cearfoss said. “They do it in other states, and I assume that we should also be able to do it in Ohio.”
Based on the IRC study, Maine has the smallest amount of uninsured drivers at 4.5 percent. When they renew their vehicle registration each year, Maine’s drivers must provide proof of auto insurance.
“I don’t know if there’s any answer to it. I really don’t,” Foley said. “Unless they develop some type of system that your insurance provider would have to notify the state once you drop your coverage that your license is automatically suspended, that’s the only way they could try to do that, but then you’re going to get into privacy issues.”
Whatever the solution, Judge Kobly believes the problem of uninsured and unlicensed drivers in Youngstown will continue to linger because of the city’s economic situation.
“It all comes down to money, unfortunately,” she said. “People live month to month, and they just don’t have the money. So it’s a financial issue for a lot of folks, and that contributes to [the problem] in a big way.”
TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, Kent State University, The University of Akron and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator, and The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio, both of Akron.