The Dallas City Council Thursday unanimously approved an ordinance authorizing police to tow vehicles involved in collisions if the drivers cannot prove they have auto insurance coverage. Police have the leeway to not tow the vehicle if they believe the driver may have insurance, but just can’t prove it at the scene. It’s going to be interesting to see how the police use this discretion.
A Dallas Morning News columnist sets out some of the potential negatives to such a towing policy. In her opinion, there are more negatives than positives.
Sherry Jacobson: Tow policy a step, not a surefire fix
As expected, the Dallas City Council joined the stampede Wednesday in authorizing the towing of any uninsured vehicle involved in an accident in the city.
A lot of people had cause to celebrate the unanimous vote.
After all, our beleaguered Police Department gets a new law to enforce. The towing companies get more cars to haul away. The insurance industry gets more policyholders. And drivers of insured vehicles get assurance that drivers of uninsured vehicles will be punished someday soon.
Too bad it won’t fix the problem of all these uninsured cars on our streets and highways.
Mandatory towing is the kind of law that sounds good on paper but could easily backfire in practice.
While it’s possible that thousands of uninsured drivers in Dallas – and the suburbs with similar laws – will rush to buy insurance for their vehicles, it seems more likely that people who can’t afford such coverage will simply look for ways to get around it.
And it’s worrisome that we may be setting in motion something far worse than what’s happening now.
One of the scariest outcomes would be a dramatic increase in the number of hit-and-run accidents in Dallas as more and more drivers flee the scene to hang on to their uninsured vehicles. That has happened in places that resorted to automatic towing.
It’s also possible that we’ll see a wholesale abandonment of impounded vehicles because their owners can’t afford to buy insurance and pay the fines and retrieval costs. Instead, these drivers might simply go out and get another vehicle to drive without insurance, something that also has happened in places with towing policies.
Then there’s the obvious charade of owners who would reclaim their impounded vehicles by buying a one-month insurance policy, which is the minimal – and cheapest – coverage allowed in Texas. This loophole would put another uninsured vehicle back on our streets when the coverage runs out in four weeks.
Finally, Dallas officials have promised that the new policy will cost nothing to administer. But private towing companies might require a city subsidy if too many low-income car owners simply allow their uninsured vehicles to be sold at auction.
Other cities have found that the sale of older models hasn’t generated enough money to cover even the basic towing fees.
I’m certainly not alone in feeling anxious about the new law.
Even without knowing much about the flaws of mandatory towing, almost half of the Dallas council members expressed doubts Wednesday about what will happen when the policy takes effect later this year.
As a compromise, the council agreed to monitor the towing rollout closely and re-evaluate whether to continue the policy in two years.
Several members said they were worried that the new law would be applied unevenly to Dallas drivers who are caught without proof of insurance.
As proposed, police officers and their supervisors would have the discretion to decide which cars to tow – or not tow – whenever drivers couldn’t produce immediate proof of coverage.
Does that mean a North Dallas driver in a new car would get a break and a South Dallas driver in an older car would not? No one can say for sure.
Likewise, the new policy is unlikely to help police combat Dallas’ sky-high crime rate.
But it’s already clear that more police officers will be spending more time at car accidents trying to determine whether the vehicles involved have insurance coverage.
When cars are towed, these same officers will be required to help drivers and passengers get to a safe place to arrange transportation.
Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia expressed concerns about overfilling the city’s car pound. She reported that there wasn’t enough space, staff or security at the West Dallas facility to accommodate the hundreds, maybe thousands, of uninsured vehicles that could be towed there in the near future.
“I have heartburn about how this is going to operate,” Dr. Garcia told her colleagues before casting her vote in favor of the towing policy. “I hope that we look at the big picture.”
So do I.