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SALT LAKE CITY — Uninsured drivers on Utah roadways can expect to have their cars impounded on the spot under a new law taking effect Thursday.
Utah police have had the option to pull over an uninsured driver and impound their car since 2008, but the new law will require it unless there's a safety concern.
Despite Utah's relatively low rate of uninsured drivers, state Sen. Lyle Hillyard, a Logan Republican who sponsored the law, said it's "a worthwhile price for the greater good" of making sure uninsured drivers don't cause a financial burden to others if they get in an accident.
In 2012, Utah had the fourth-lowest rate of uninsured drivers in the country at 5.8 percent, according data from the Insurance Research Council.
Hillyard estimates Utah's rate is now closer to 3 percent, but he said the law is still needed to further crack down on those driving without coverage.
It gives (law enforcement) more of an incentive to impound the car, but it has a lot of protection in there.
–State Sen. Lyle Hillyard
The law gives officers discretion so they're not seizing every car, he said. The law has exceptions if the officer is concerned that seizing the vehicle would be a safety concern to the driver or any occupants or keep the officer from addressing any other public safety matters.
"It gives them more of an incentive to impound the car, but it has a lot of protection in there," Hillyard said. "For example, if it's an unsafe position or if you've got a mom and some little kids there, those kinds of things, it would protect them from doing that."
Law enforcement officers would have to check the person against a state database of uninsured drivers. If the driver insists they have insurance, the officer must make "a reasonable attempt" to verify if the person is covered, such as calling the insurance agency.
Several states allow impounding, but it's unclear if any others require it. Several cities in Texas, including Dallas, require police to tow the cars of uninsured drivers.
It passed unanimously in Utah's state Senate in March, but only won approval by on a 38-31 vote in the House, with many Republicans voting against.
One of those opposed is Republican Rep. Paul Ray from Clearfield, who said he's worried about the accuracy of the uninsured driver database. He's had several constituents complain that they were pulled over because the database incorrectly showed they were uninsured, he said.
"There's just a lot of ifs, and I'm not sure it's the role of government to say, 'We're going to take your car and impound it if your insurance isn't paid on it,' " Rep. Paul Ray
"These people, they had the proof. They were still cited. They still had to go to court," said Ray, who predicts there will be "a lot of unhappy people" once the law takes effect.
He's concerned about misunderstandings such as a spouse or a child being pulled over despite not being the family member who pays the insurance, he said.
"There's just a lot of ifs, and I'm not sure it's the role of government to say, 'We're going to take your car and impound it if your insurance isn't paid on it,' " Ray said.
The law says Utah pay back drivers whose cars are wrongfully impounded. Legislative staff estimate that will cost about $13,000 a year, which would cover about 25 wrongfully impounded cars.
It's unclear how often police currently impound cars for insurance reasons.
Overall, the Utah law enforcement impounded about 25,000 cars in 2014, said Charlie Roberts, a spokesman for the Utah State Tax Commission, which oversees the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Highlighted below are a few other notable laws taking effect Jan. 1:
Dog breed restrictions: Under this new law, cities and towns are no longer allowed to ban specific dog breeds within their limits. The law's author, Salt Lake City Democratic Rep. Brian King, said at least 10 cities have restrictions that ban ownership of specific breeds such as pit bulls. Starting Jan. 1, those laws will be nullified, and cities cannot pass new restrictions.
Elections amendments: A law overhauling the system for nominating political candidates takes effect Thursday, though it's not expected to make a splash until 2016, when many offices in Utah are up for re-election. Candidates will be allowed to bypass the state's caucus and convention system and instead compete in a primary election if they gather enough signatures. The Utah Republican Party has filed a lawsuit over the changes, arguing that the U.S. Constitution ensures political parties the right to choose how it selects its candidates. That case is still pending in federal court.