Traffic rolls along on Interstate 244. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Oklahoma could begin this year to prosecute drivers who license plate scanners have caught driving without insurance. 

Launched in late 2018, the Uninsured Vehicle Diversion program (UVED) has enrolled more than 14,000 drivers and generated more than $2 million in fees from drivers caught driving without insurance. But so far no one has been prosecuted, with program prosecutor Amanda Arnall Couch opting for a more gentle approach.

“We’ve wanted to get people used to the program, and used to having insurance,” Couch said. “So far I’ve not sent anyone to prosecution, though that is coming. Eventually these will turn into criminal cases with the DA’s.”

The UVED cameras, which currently exist in fixed locations in Tulsa, Owasso and Oklahoma, as well as on five vehicles, take pictures of license plates and submit them to the Oklahoma Department of Insurance to be cross-referenced with a database of insured drivers. 

If the Insurance Department determines the plate doesn’t correspond to an insured driver, the image is quality checked and sent to a law enforcement officer for review to determine if the plate was read correctly and if the vehicle was on an Oklahoma roadway. 

The quality checks are important — when the first round of notices went out to drivers caught by the cameras, hundreds of letters went to drivers who were already insured.

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Couch said the cameras have been upgraded since then.

If all the boxes are checked, Couch reviews it and then sends the driver a letter offering entrance into a diversion program. For $174 and a promise to keep insurance for two years, the driver stays out of the courts and on the road.

But there’s the rub — Couch said some of the drivers don’t keep their insurance. And when it comes time to prosecute, she’s likely targeting the repeat offenders.

“These are people who’ve paid the fee to enter the diversion program, said they got insurance, and then months later we catch them on camera again,” she said. “We can see they had insurance for the first couple months, but then they dropped it for whatever reason. All our documentation that we send them is clear, they are agreeing to stay insured for two years to avoid prosecution.”

Couch said the fees self fund the program, which has generated more than $1.1 million divvied out between the DA’s Council UVED program, the Oklahoma Insurance Department, and the Law Enforcement and Firefighters retirement fund. A percentage is distributed from the DA’s Council to the various district attorneys offices in the districts where the offense occurred.

The rest of the money goes to Gatso USA, the vendor who runs the cameras, she said. The company currently gets $80 of each $174 fee to enter the diversion program. That figure will drop to $74 later this year, and then $68 in 2023.

When the program launched, Gatso USA, based in Massachusetts, said it expected tens of thousands of citations to go out each month, and recommended a slow rollout of citations early on in order to not overwhelm Oklahoma drivers. But Couch said initial estimates of the number of uninsured drivers ended up being overblown. Originally, there were fears the number of uninsured drivers could be as high as 26 percent, Couch said, referencing a 2016 study that ended up being flawed. But the true number ended up being around 10 percent. 

When it was first announced, there were fears that simply being caught on camera without insurance would result in an automatic citation, but Couch said she has worked to make the program have a lighter touch. Sometimes the fee to enter the diversion program is waived if there are hardships being faced by the uninsured person, and someone captured by the cameras driving without insurance gets multiple letters warning them that they could face prosecution.

“I’ve worked hard to make (the program) more friendly than some of the hardliners maybe wanted,” Couch said. “The first letter is very friendly, so friendly that some people think it’s a scam. Then the second letter has a little more red ink in it, and the third letter is actually signed by that person’s district attorney.”

The lighter touch also follows a Pew Trusts study that showed many uninsured drivers aren’t without insurance out of laziness or malice, but because they simply can’t afford it. Many car insurance companies tie insurance rates to a person’s credit score, since studies have shown drivers with higher credit scores file fewer claims. This policy also means that drivers with less means to pay can be charged more for insurance.

More cameras on the way

When the UVED program began on Nov. 1, 2018, it consisted of cameras affixed atop vehicles that would drive through busy metro areas, allowing the cameras to glimpse as many potential uninsured drivers as possible.

That led to some issues, Couch said. The vehicles were hitting the same congested spots over and over. While this had the desired effect of catching the most vehicles possible, it also captured the same commuters over and over, Couch said. And since the vehicles had to be so focused on specific high-traffic areas, it meant that mostly metro drivers were being monitored, leaving other parts of the state unwatched.

In time, fixed cameras were installed in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and Couch said seven more were coming soon in Oklahoma City, Ardmore and Edmond. The vehicles, she said, have been freed to drive to more remote parts of the state.

“The whole program has been a big success in my mind,” Couch said. “I thought when we passed 1,000 people in the diversion program, that was a huge win, and we’re well beyond that now.”