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Proof of insurance? Lawmaker wants an app for that as well

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POSTED March 5, 2012 12:57 a.m.

SACRAMENTO  (AP) — California drivers seeing flashing lights in their rearview mirror may soon be reaching for their smartphones instead of putting them down.

A bill introduced by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, would give Californians the option of presenting their proof of insurance on a hand-held device during traffic stops.

“We are the state where there’s so much technological capital,” Gatto said. “We run the risk of losing that value if we don’t update our laws from time to time.”

Many insurance companies have introduced apps that display customer information, but the state vehicle code does not mention electronic devices, leaving law enforcement officers in a gray area during traffic stops.

One of Gatto’s younger staffers suggested AB1708 as a way to spare residents from having to rustle through the glove compartment for insurance papers. Similar efforts are under consideration in Arizona and Idaho, but no states have yet approved the change, according to insurance organizations.

Gatto plans to amend the bill to include registration papers, which the Department of Motor Vehicles would have to provide electronically.

The DMV does not comment on pending legislation, but spokesman Armando Botello said the department has never provided scanned documents to customers.

Like many state agencies, the department has had budget cuts in recent years that have reduced hours and staffing. But Gatto said the DMV also is creating paperless options, including online registration.

As it is currently written, the bill would require insurance companies to provide electronic proof of insurance to customers upon request.

Willem Rijksen, vice president for public affairs at American Insurance Association, said his organization supports giving companies the option of providing electronic verification but said a state mandate could put a burden on smaller companies and drive up insurance costs.

Nevertheless, insurance lobbyists are pressing for the option to be allowed around the country. California is home to 32 million registered vehicles, the most of any state, and could be a trend-setter if the option is approved here. Texas is next, with 21 million vehicles.

Under Gatto’s bill, developing a specific application for mobile devices would not be necessary. Drivers also could also just scan their own forms into their devices and present them that way to police.

“There are so many drivers in California; it would show that this is an important choice that consumers and insurers want to have,” said Nicole Ganley of Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, which has been lobbying for the change. “This is just popping up everywhere, and it’s because we all love our phones.”

But not everyone loves the idea of personal devices in the hands of law enforcement officers.

A recent state Supreme Court ruling gave police the right to search suspects’ telephones if they are unlocked.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it will work with Gatto and other lawmakers to ensure that drivers handing over mobile devices do not end up revealing more than they intended.

“I think that the Legislature is keenly aware with the privacy concerns that arise now with any technology,” ACLU California Legislative Director Francisco Lobaco said.

The introduction of technology into routine traffic stops also could threaten police safety, said Capt. Edward Laverone of the California Police Officers’ Association. If a phone locked or went to sleep while officers were copying down information, police would have to make an extra trip between vehicles so the driver could pull up the information again.

“One of the most unsafe things is walking from the patrol car,” he said. “Every year or so, there’s a police officer that gets killed on the shoulder.”

Gatto is expected to amend the bill to provide privacy protections and flexibility for insurance companies.

He said that in some respects, the option of going digital could be a boon to privacy. For example, people with garage door openers in their cars would not have to worry about thieves finding their homes using their insurance or registration cards.

The bill is expected to go before the Assembly Insurance Committee later this month.

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