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Next step for undocumented California drivers: Insurance


Starting Jan. 1, unauthorized immigrants can get California driver’s licenses, but before they can register their vehicles they’ll need one more, pricier item -- auto insurance.

Another state law is aimed at fixing that. Also starting Jan. 1, unauthorized immigrants for the first time are eligible to buy insurance through California Low Cost Auto Insurance.

If the state is successful in getting unauthorized but licensed drivers to sign up for insurance, the state could begin to see a decline in the number of uninsured drivers, a factor that has boosted auto insurance premiums for everyone.

That process figures to begin soon.

CHEAP COVERAGE

The 14-year-old California Low-Cost Auto Insurance program, known as CLCA, lets income-eligible drivers get legally mandated auto coverage through the state.

With 1.4 million undocumented immigrants expected to apply for California licenses over the next three years, state officials hope to spread the word about the program, making CLCA a household acronym.

But the pool of people the state wants to reach has a mixed record when it comes to buying car insurance.

Over the years, CLCA hasn’t been popular. Since 2000, about 70,000 people have signed on and so far this year it’s taken on about 12,000 new customers.

The program was set to expire at the end of next year, but a state law written by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, removed that sunset clause. The law also lifted a requirement that CLCA customers have at least a three-year driving record, essentially opening up the program to newly licensed drivers.

Meanwhile, the problem CLCA was supposed to fix -- the growth of uninsured drivers -- has held steady. California has as many as 4.1 million uninsured motorists, and state insurance officials believe a big chunk of those unlicensed drivers are undocumented residents.

That’s why the California Department of Insurance is kicking off a Spanish-language marketing campaign to tell future drivers about the bare bones liability insurance they might be able to get through CLCA. The state plans to coordinate with Mexican Consulate offices and immigrant rights groups and others that helped push AB60, the law that lets undocumented immigrants get driver’s licenses.

Chris Shultz, deputy commissioner at the California Dept. of Insurance, said the “unique circumstances” of the next year - a flood of newly licensed drivers, many of whom will have income low enough to qualify for CLCA - make it smart to pitch the state insurance program to a new group of potential customers.

“We’ve been hitting the other targets for (over) 10 years, with limited success.”

NICHE MARKET

Anaheim resident Yolanda Alarcón recently took her teenage son for his driver license exam. Pretty soon, she’ll get her turn -- even though she already drives.

“We do it out of necessity,” she said.

She may not have a license, but Alarcón does have auto insurance.

Anyone in California, even those without licenses, can buy auto insurance. Some 20 smaller agencies specializing in niche markets sell to the undocumented, Shultz said.

Insurance for first-time drivers is more expensive than it is for drivers with established records. Among other things, first-time drivers don’t qualify for a good driver’s discount, which reduces the bill by 20 percent, said Jeffrey Spring, a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Under the CLCA program, a current premium is $338 a year in Los Angeles and Orange County, and $238 in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. After Jan. 1, the highest premium will be in Orange and Los Angeles counties, where they will top off at $472 for unauthorized immigrants.

MORE INSURED DRIVERS

One of the main arguments for granting licenses to people living in the California illegally is that it will increase safety on the road for everyone and lead to greater insurance compliance.

“Unlicensed to Kill,” a 2011 study by the Auto Club, found that unlicensed drivers are five times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes and more likely to flee the scene of a crime.

Uninsured drivers also boost payouts by insurance companies and, as such, insurance rates for people who get insurance.

While Shultz, with the state insurance commission, believes the marketing pitch pushing CLCA to the undocumented will make a dent in the number of uninsured drivers, others aren’t sure.

In 2011, Tim Query, an associate professor of risk management and insurance studies at New Mexico State University, investigated the relationship between undocumented residents in New Mexico and whether granting them licenses led to an increase in insurance compliance. He found no significant bump.

“Statistically, there wasn’t a significant difference,” Query said. “Probably how the economy is doing will be more important.”

Still, he is curious about how that will play out in California. He said the state’s insurance program could make a difference in reducing the ranks of the uninsured.

“It could be helpful if they get the word out,” Query said. “It’ll be interesting to see.”

Posted 7:08 PM  View Comments

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