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Cars Behind Bars 

If you don't have a license or are drunk, the vehicle you're driving will be impounded

There has been standing room only in the lobby of the Pima County Sheriff's Department headquarters lately, as people wait for their impounded vehicles to be released.

One recent day, some folks grumbled about having to stand around as a deputy took their information and ran upstairs to process their requests. Two men said the towing company was no help at all. One woman said she wasn't the one driving her car when it was seized.

But that doesn't matter. A pair of laws passed by the Arizona Legislature last year made it mandatory to impound cars in a number of cases. One law, which went into effect in August, mandates that police impound cars when drivers who are uninsured and unlicensed are involved in an accident.

The other law, which went into effect Nov. 1, made it mandatory for law enforcement to confiscate cars during traffic stops when drivers don't have a valid license or are arrested for driving drunk.

PCSD personnel working the front desk said there's been a constant stream of people trying to get their vehicles back since the laws went into effect. Many of the owners had loaned their vehicles to someone else when the cars were impounded.

An accurate count of unlicensed and uninsured Arizona drivers is hard to come by, according to experts. After all, these drivers are undocumented, said Cydney DeModica, a spokeswoman for the Motor Vehicle Division.

DeModica said there are approximately 4.3 million licensed drivers in Arizona, and her division is informed when people cancel their insurance or let it lapse. The MVD sends a notice to those people, and if they don't get insurance within 15 days, their registration is suspended, she said.

Two officials in the insurance industry made educated guesses about the proportion of uninsured drivers on the state's roads. They said a figure of 40 percent, cited by The Arizona Republic last year while the bills were being considered, was too high.

Lanny Hair, executive vice president of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of Arizona, has been in the insurance industry for 37 years. He said many past studies on the number of Arizona's uninsured drivers are "skewed."

"There are no real hard, dependable statistics," Hair said. "My best guess is it's under 20 percent--quite a bit under 20 percent."

Jim Frederikson, executive director of the Arizona Insurance Information Association, said "nobody knows for sure how many uninsured drivers there are out there."

Nonetheless, he estimated that about 16 percent of drivers lack insurance. He arrived at that estimate by looking at the ratio of people injured in collisions who were paid by another person's liability insurance, to those who were injured and had to collect on their own uninsured-motorist protection. This protection covers insured drivers when they get into collisions with people who don't have insurance.

Frederikson also said the number of uninsured drivers in Arizona is a bit higher than in other states. He couldn't say why, however.

State Rep. Robert Meza, D-Phoenix, who co-sponsored the accident impound bill, said he had been hearing from constituents for years about crashes involving uninsured and unlicensed drivers. Meza himself had his car destroyed by such a driver a week before the bill went to committee.

He said he had heard a lot of cars were being impounded in the Tucson area, and that the law had proven to be "broad-based."

"Even Porsches and Hummers and those types of vehicles are being impounded," Meza said. "It doesn't just affect poor people. What's happening is people are driving with a suspended license; they're getting in an accident, and their cars are being impounded."

But some say there may be drawbacks to the law, as impounding vehicles eats up law enforcement time. David Cowley, public affairs manager for the Arizona Automobile Association, said authorities in the Phoenix area and with the Arizona Department of Public Safety have told him the laws have pinched manpower. Still, he said, the pros have probably outweighed the cons.

"We generally supported the legislation--certainly the idea behind it--though we recognized at the time that when you've got a police force that is already stretched to the limit, impounding these cars poses an additional burden--and it has," Cowley said. "The problem is, of course, what used to be a fairly short stop now involves waiting for a tow truck, dealing with paperwork and the paperwork back in the office; they have to call the people whose vehicles they've impounded, and so on and so forth. They have seen a big impact."

DPS officials didn't respond to repeated calls for comment.

By law, vehicles are held for 30 days unless the owner or someone closely related to the owner (such a spouse) is able to produce a valid driver's license and registration. Lien holders may also secure a vehicle's early release.

Tucson Police Department Sgt. Chris Andreacola, who handles impoundment hearings, estimated that 350 vehicles were towed in November, and about 550 were seized in both December and January. About half of the impounded vehicles were driven by someone other than their owners, he said.

He said that so far, the process is eating up manpower. But, he said, "in the long run, it's not going to have an impact," thanks to an administrative fee of $150 and storage fees of $15 a day that help defray costs. Gary's Towing, the company that has the city towing contract, also charges $8.50 to hook up a car, $1.50 per mile to transfer it and $8.50 a day in storage costs.

"We're not picking on people who got a speeding ticket," he said, "and they forgot to take care of it, and then got pulled over two days later and had their car impounded. That's not going to happen."

People are also starting to come around to the fact that loaning a vehicle to, for example, a brother-in-law who has a suspended license, could end up costing them a lot of money, Andreacola said. After all, the vehicle's owner is responsible for paying for its release if it's impounded.

"Obviously, the person who's the driver, you can't have much sympathy for. They know they should not be driving--that's just common sense," he said. "The owner who didn't know who they were loaning their car to--once again, it's back to common sense and responsibility. It's their car; they should know who they're loaning it to."

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