More than 50,000 vehicles in Utah are at risk of being impounded because of a flaw in a statewide database

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Danny Allen looks for cars illegally using the HOV lanes along I-15 in Salt Lake Valley Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2016. Utah Department of Transportation and Utah Highway Patrol are partnering and launching an enforcement blitz to educate drivers how to correctly use the express lanes. He approaches the white truck, right, which was using the HOV lane with only a driver. The driver got a ticket. Utah's Express Lanes are the longest continuous in the country stretching 72 miles from Layton to Spanish Fork.

Lawmakers are raising concerns that defects in a program to catch and remove uninsured motorists from Utah’s highways may be punishing too many falsely accused drivers.

Audits show that a database — which matches data from more than 300 insurance companies to a list of all registered vehicles — is 96 percent to 98 percent accurate in identifying uninsured cars. Still, that means about 56,000 of Utah’s 2.7 million vehicles could show up falsely as lacking insurance.

Legislators said that accuracy level is adequate for work by the State Tax Commission to revoke registration of uninsured cars, since drivers are sent three letters asking them to prove they actually are insured before action is taken.

But it creates problems when police use the database to ticket drivers — and possibly impound their cars — before owners have a chance to contest the database.

Even if they show police a card from their insurance company saying they are insured, under current law “the database trumps any card” because cards may be out of date, Scott Smith, deputy director of the State Tax Commission, told the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee on Monday.

That led members to discuss limiting the ability of police to issue tickets using the database, perhaps preventing impounding cars when tickets are issued and ways to perhaps increase accuracy of the database.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, Senate chairman of the committee, worried that some police departments may use the database to hunt for cars on the list — to ticket them and keep revenue locally.

He noted that a recent KSL-TV story said 11,800 tickets for no insurance were issued over three years. It said West Valley City police issued the most: 568 — but 28 percent were dismissed after motorists went to court to prove they had insurance.

“What I have an issue with is a potential perverse incentive for a law enforcement officer within a city to fish to try to issue citations in order to generate revenue,” Anderegg said.

He suggested perhaps making tickets for not having insurance a “secondary” offense, meaning police could not pull over cars just for that — but would need to pull them over for some other offense first, such as speeding or a moving violation.

Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, the House chairman of the committee, said changes may be warranted to allow police more discretion to consider insurance cards or other proof — such as a quick call to an insurance agent — to avoid tickets. He said perhaps impounding cars is too harsh and should no longer be allowed.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, questioned why the state still requires drivers to carry written or electronic proof of insurance if the database trumps it.

He also said the 28 percent of tickets overturned in court in West Valley City, for example, may be the “tip of the iceberg” in people unfairly ticketed, but others may not be able to afford time off work to fight such tickets.

Some lawmakers asked what else could be done to improve accuracy of the database, which is compiled by a contractor called Insure-Rite.

Bart Blackstock, a former deputy director of the state’s driver license division and chief operating officer of Insure-Rite, said the database is currently updated every two weeks with new data from insurance companies — but could be done more often if the state desires.

“The biggest problem is people not responding to letters” from his company and the state asking people identified as uninsured to prove they are. He said many ignore those letters initially, believing that a proof of insurance card could avoid any problems if stopped.

Blackstock said problems sometimes occur because 17-digit vehicle identification numbers can be easily mistyped by insurance companies or the state, or people fail to update addresses with the state — so they may miss letters about problems.

Despite the flaws, State Tax Commission Executive Director Barry Conover said the database and the program to revoke registration of uninsured cars has helped solve what once was an almost out-of-control problem with uninsured drivers.

“Back then the uninsured motorist was running rampant in the state,” he said. “Most accidents that occurred at that time involved at least one uninsured motorist.”

He added, “That’s not the case right now,” and few uninsured motorists are now on highways because of the program.