Car owners around the Bay Area are paying thousands of dollars in traffic fines when they could be paying nothing.
It all comes down to your smartphone and a consumer protection law that many people don’t know exists.
THE ROLLING STOP
Photographer Mark Lilly often spends his mornings in Santa Cruz, capturing the sunrise.
Last winter, an early morning excursion started off all wrong, when a police officer stopped him.
“I made a rolling stop and he pulled me over,” Lilly said.
Lilly wasn’t ticketed for the rolling stop. But he was cited for something else: not having his insurance card with him.
“He was nice about,” Lilly explained. “And said, ‘Hey, I’m going to give you a fix-it ticket.’”
A fix-it ticket allows you to pay a $25 fine later, if you can show proof of insurance to the court.
Lilly says he tried to do that, but ran into roadblocks.
His story gets messy here because his ticket had the wrong address and the court had computer problems. Lilly admits that after several weeks of trying to pay the ticket, he just gave up.
“It didn’t even cross my mind anymore. I thought well, it’s a fix-it ticket, it’s minor — $25," he said.
But months later, that "minor" amount ballooned into a $1,200 fine. The court sent Lilly’s case to a debt collector. It demanded a $900 fine for not having insurance plus a $300 collections fee.
“I was sort of shocked and didn’t know what to say,” Lilly said.
Lilly asked us if we could help. We tried. But Lilly is still being told he has to pay.
AN APP THAT GETS OUT OF A TICKET
We learned that there was something Lilly could have done to prevent this fix-it ticket mess at the time he was pulled over. He could have pulled out his cellphone.
Since 2013, California law has allowed drivers to show proof of insurance electronically on their smart phones – using either the insurance company’s app or an image of the paper card on the screen.
Lilly says he had no idea that was an option and the police officer didn’t suggest it.
“He didn’t tell me that,” Lilly said.
Lilly’s case triggered our curiosity. We wondered: how many other drivers have been issued fix-it tickets when they could have just pulled out a phone and paid nothing at all?
That data proved difficult to get. Many courts can’t extract it from the records.
But we did get numbers from San Mateo and Marin counties.
THOUSANDS OF TICKETS
In the four years since this law has been in effect, Redwood City has issued 1,156; San Carlos issued 540; and San Rafael issued 1,098.
Drivers in San Mateo and Marin counties alone paid $320,000 in fines when they could have paid zero if they had a smartphone to show proof of insurance.
“California, in my opinion, is a little behind in the electronic communications,” said Armand Feliciano, of the Association of California Insurance Companies, which supported the law that now allows drivers to show proof of insurance electronically.
He’d like to see police officers encouraging drivers to pull out their phone and do away with fix it tickets.
“This is not even the way of the future. This is it,” he said. “This is what’s happening now. Everybody that has a smartphone understands this is how it works.”
DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL
State law does not require law enforcement officers to ask you about your smartphone or tell you that an insurance company app could get you out of a ticket for not having your insurance card.
We asked 16 police departments what they do. Many said there’s no protocol within their departments requiring officers to tell drivers about the law. But some said they try to do it anyway. The California Highway Patrol said it does let drivers know.
As for your vehicle registration, electronic copies of that are not allowed. Only paper copies are accepted.