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    Tag-snatching plan under fire

    Auditors say a move to grab license plates from drivers without insurance does more harm than good.

    By ALISA ULFERTS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 30, 2001


    When lawmakers hatched a plan several years ago to let private bounty hunters pry license plates off uninsured cars, they figured they had found a way to get the drivers of those cars off the road.

    They did more than that.

    State auditors now say thousands of drivers have had their tags seized mistakenly since the program began. And since September 1999, officials say about a third of all tags seized in the program were taken mistakenly. The auditors want to scrap the pilot program, under way in Hillsborough, Broward and Miami-Dade counties since 1995, because officials with the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles don't think they can reduce the number of mistakes much.

    "We recommend that the Legislature abolish the pilot program because of the consistently high error rate in seized plates ... and the inconvenience to vehicle owners whose plates are seized in error," wrote auditors with the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, an independent auditing arm of the Legislature.

    Highway department officials blame outdated information from insurance companies for the high error rate. Some drivers involved did nothing more than switch insurance companies, said Sherry Slepin, the highway department's legislative affairs administrator. They then found themselves without a valid driver's license and tags because their new insurance company didn't contact the state, she said.

    "People change carriers. One notices the cancellation (to the state), but the other doesn't notice the new policy," Slepin said.

    One of the biggest contributors to the problem is human error, Slepin and state auditors agree. Insured vehicles are tracked by a 17-character vehicle identification number. If a clerk with the state or an insurance company records that number incorrectly, the wrong car is listed as uninsured, Slepin said.

    "It's letters and numbers, and just one missed keystroke and you don't have a match," Slepin said. She, too, is encouraging state lawmakers to end the program before it is set to expire in 2002. Lawmakers in 1999 said they wanted to expand the program if the error rate is reduced to 2 percent.

    Slepin said the program has improved since 1998, when highway department officials estimated that up to half of the tags seized were taken mistakenly. Better communication with insurance companies brought that number down to about 35 percent, Slepin said.

    State officials estimate between 15 percent and 27 percent of Florida drivers are uninsured.

    Ronald Newton, a recovery agent from St. Petersburg, said he quit the Hillsborough County pilot program about three months ago.

    "Economically, it just wasn't feasible," Newton said. For every tag Newton or other recovery agents seized, they got $25. If the car's owner then paid the $150 reinstatement charge, they got another $25. (People whose plates are wrongly seized get them back for free, although they must show proof of insurance to claim them.)

    But Newton, who repossesses motorcycles and watercraft, said he blames the insurance companies, not the state, for the mix-up.

    "The state did the best job they could with the information they had," he said.

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