Originally created 06/05/06

Drivers not deterred by suspension



ANDERSON, S.C. - About 5 percent of South Carolina's drivers - more than 156,000 - have suspended or revoked licenses, according to South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles records.

But officials say many of those people continue to drive, causing crashes and financial strain because many people with suspended licenses also are uninsured.

"As long as their license is suspended, they would not be covered under any policy," Allstate insurance agent Tony Long said. "We, the customers, have to bear the cost of uninsured (drivers)."

The insurance industry does not track how much it costs to pay out claims for drivers who are involved in a crash and are driving illegally.

But the average cost for an insured driver to carry uninsured motorist coverage is $21 a year, according to data collected by the South Carolina Insurance News Service.

And if an insured driver is in an accident that was the fault of an uninsured driver, the insured driver's premiums will go up, said Beth Parks, a spokeswoman for the state Motor Vehicles Department.

"If you are hit by an uninsured motorist it will be even worse, because your premiums will go up for something you didn't do," she said.

Mr. Long said insurance companies try to recoup their losses from the uninsured drivers. But sometimes the cost goes beyond dollars.

Kenneth Nelms, whose license had been suspended eight times, crashed his Honda into a van carrying Mildred and Jack Thrasher last November. Mrs. Thrasher was killed.

State records show Mr. Nelms' license was suspended eight times between November 2002 and March 2004.

Mr. Nelms had been sentenced to five years' probation in March 2004 after being convicted of drug possession, grand larceny and driving with a suspended license.

Days before the crash, Mr. Nelms' probation agent warned him that if he were arrested for driving without license, his probation would be revoked.

"If they'd kept Mr. Nelms in jail, my mother would still be alive today," son Richard Thrasher said.

Mr. Nelms is scheduled to go on trial this month on several charges stemming from the wreck, including driving with a suspended license.

About two-thirds of drivers with suspended licenses continue to drive, according to Licensed to Kill, a 2003 study for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Overall, unlicensed drivers are four times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than licensed drivers, the study showed.

"What we are recognizing is that behind drunk drivers, these people are the next-worse category of drivers out there. And drunk drivers are in that mix," said Robert Scopatz, of Data Nexus Inc. of Texas, who worked on the study.

In South Carolina, most suspensions require the driver take one or more traffic education classes, pay a $100 reinstatement fee and $500 for special insurance.

Rep. Scott Talley, R-Spartanburg, introduced a bill in January that would increase fines to $400 from $50 for those caught driving without a license. The bill did not make it through the 2006 legislative session, but Mr. Talley said he plans to introduce it again next year.

"It won't stop everybody, but I do think there is a chance that people will think more about it when it hits them in the pocketbook harder," he said.