Scanners may catch uninsured motorists

Ben Botkin Oklahoma Watch
The website for Massachusetts-based Gatso USA shows one of its roadside cameras used to capture images of license plates of drivers who speed. The company is contracting with Oklahoma to provide scanners for detecting uninsured vehicles. Gatso USA website.

Oklahoma finalized a deal this week with a Massachusetts company to use license-plate scanners to catch uninsured drivers, and the firm expects to issue an eventual 20,000 citations a month starting as early as next year.

The program, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, involves setting up automated scanners on highways around the state to detect uninsured vehicles and mailing their owners a citation with a fine of $184, according to the District Attorneys Council.

Gatso USA, a Beverly, Massachusetts-based company that specializes in red-light-running and speeding detection systems, will initially get $80, or 43 percent, of each fine. Its cut will decrease to $74 after two years and $68 after five years, according to a contract approved by the state after more than six months of legal review and negotiation. The company could expect to bring in $1.6 million a month if the 20,000-citation-a-month estimate is accurate.

Gatso is a subsidiary of a Dutch company.

Drivers who pay the fees will avoid having a charge of driving without insurance on their permanent record.

When the first citations will be issued remains unclear. Gatso executives didn’t return phone calls and messages seeking comment.

The purpose of the Uninsured Vehicle Enforcement Diversion Program, approved by the state Legislature in 2016, is to reduce the high number of uninsured motorists in Oklahoma.

But another incentive underlies the program. It will be overseen by the District Attorneys Council rather than law enforcement, and the state’s 27 district attorneys’ offices are expected to receive millions of dollars in citation revenue a year. District attorneys have complained that their revenue sources are diminishing because of state budget cutbacks and the decline in bounced-check fines.

State officials aren’t sure when the scanners will be out on the roads scanning license plates as technical details get ironed out. And while the project could raise millions for district attorneys, estimates of the amount of revenue to be gained from the citations are largely based on guesswork.

Program Rollout

The cameras will be deployed on a small scale initially. Vehicles with scanners will be sent throughout the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metro areas to get traffic counts, gauge noncompliance and gather data on initial locations to install cameras.

How it Works

The cameras will scan license plates of vehicles, comparing them against a database of insured vehicles. Owners of uninsured vehicles will get citations in the mail, regardless of who the driver was at the time the scanner caught them.

Citations will come from the company, not district attorneys. If vehicle owners don’t pay the citations, the information gets forwarded to district attorneys for potential prosecution.

Those paying and getting insurance also avoid other penalties that would come from a traditional citation, like a license suspension, said Trent Baggett, executive coordinator of the District Attorneys Council.

Vehicle owners who receive inaccurate citations can avoid payment by showing that they were insured at the time they were scanned.

While the number of cameras will be relatively low, they will be moved around the state. Officials are focusing more on high-traffic areas where more vehicle plates can be scanned.

For now, district attorneys will wait to see whether the program fills the funding losses they’ve faced when fees dried up from the bad-check program. Right now, the potential revenue from the citations is unknown, Baggett said.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.