An otherwise-pleasant Sunday morning was ruined this week when another car slammed into my car's front fender. It was an accident truly worthy of the name fender bender.
Actually, it could have been much worse. The other driver could have been uninsured. Even though I knew that California law requires insurance or some other approved form of financial responsibility, I was very relieved to see him pull out his insurance card.
California drivers have always been required to have liability insurance, but until 1985 the only time the police could lawfully check to see if a driver had insurance was after an accident. Beginning on July 1, 1985, law enforcement officers were authorized to check for insurance at the same time as they were handing out a ticket for any other moving violation.
The policy coverage necessary to comply with the law is $15,000 for one person injured or killed, $30,000 for more than one person, and $5,000 for property damage.
(By the way, the most common form of approved financial responsibility is liability insurance, but there are some other methods, which wouldn't apply to most of us. For instance, vehicles owned by the U.S. government need not be insured, and if you happen to own more than 25 vehicles, you can try to qualify as a self-insurer.)
If you are stopped for a traffic ticket and the police ask for proof of insurance, you are required to provide "written evidence" of the name of your insurance company and your policy number. This is true even if you're only driving a motorized two-wheel scooter on the street.
You can satisfy the requirement of written evidence by writing the name of the insurance company and the policy number on your motor vehicle registration. Or you can show the officer the special card with this information that the law requires your insurance company to issue.
If you can't provide such written evidence of insurance, the police officer will cite you on the same ticket you are already getting for speeding or whatever. (How lucky can you get?)
Fortunately, if you had insurance at the time but simply did not have the policy details in your car, you can have the lack-of-insurance part of the ticket dismissed (but not the speeding part) by showing the court clerk that you had insurance. You can do this in person or by mail.
However, if you don't have insurance, the fine for your ticket can be as much as $100 (or more if you were also ticketed for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs).
In addition, within 60 days of your conviction, you will be required to file with the DMV proof of insurance and then maintain it for three years.
Don't try to fool the police officer by making up a fake policy number. Providing such false evidence is a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.
(And the state actually checks the accuracy of the policy numbers on the tickets by conducting random surveys.)
One additional note about automobile accidents. State law requires a written report of any accident in which damage to a car is $500 or more or someone is killed or injured. (There is a standard form to use. You can get it from the DMV, the Highway Patrol, the police or your insurance company.)
The State Bar publishes a helpful pamphlet called "What Should I Do if I Have an Auto Accident?" For a free copy, send a self-addressed stamped business-size envelope to State Bar Pamphlets, 555 Franklin St., San Francisco, Calif. 94102.