ANNAPOLIS — Time is running out for uninsured motorists in Maryland to take advantage of a program that forgives 80% of uninsured-driving debts that became delinquent before 2017.
Debtors have until Dec. 31 to register for the program and begin repaying the remaining 20% of their total fines. If an individual registers and pays at least one-sixth of their remaining 20% of debt by the end of the year, they have until June 2020 to finish paying.
There are approximately 308,000 unique debtors, who combined have close to 400,000 total unpaid debts, according to Maryland Auto CEO Mark McCurdy.
The average debt that prevents people from renewing their registration is in the range of $2,400 to $2,500, McCurdy told Capital News Service.
The fines are issued to drivers found operating a vehicle without insurance or allowing the coverage to lapse on a registered vehicle.
After a law was passed in Maryland’s General Assembly in 2018 to allow the program, the state’s Motor Vehicle Administration and the uninsured division of Maryland Auto — formerly known as the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, or MAIF — partnered to put the program in place.
The program is called the 2019 Maryland Uninsured Drivers Incentive Program, or FineFix for short, and aims to get uninsured drivers the coverage they need to get back behind the wheel — legally.
The state’s transportation agency “is focused on ensuring all drivers have proper insurance to ensure safety on our roadways,” Motor Vehicle Administration spokeswoman Whitney Nichels said. “We are happy to work with Maryland Auto Insurance on the FineFix program to help drivers get back on the road.”
When motorists register a vehicle, they must provide proof of insurance and cannot have any outstanding fines with the Motor Vehicle Administration.
When drivers are kept off the road, it’s difficult to find work, according to Thomas “Mac” Middleton, a former state senator who co-sponsored the 2018 bill to create the program.
As a condition of the program, the individual must secure insurance for any vehicle they already own or subsequently register.
Drivers can enlist the help of Maryland Auto, which provides liability insurance to those who are unable to obtain coverage from a private company.
In Maryland, the initial penalty for driving uninsured includes the suspension of registration and a $150 fine. The fine grows after 30 days, when a $7 fee accrues each day. The maximum penalty per year is $2,500, according to Nichels.
Maryland’s Central Collection Unit, a state entity for debt recovery, and the MVA have historically collected only a third of the uninsured motor debts, according to a legislative analysis. With so much money left unpaid, amnesty programs like this help recover a portion of that money and help drivers get back on the road legally.
The process to make debtors aware of this program began in July with mail and emails to eligible participants, followed by a push on social media.
But according to Middleton, who now works with Maryland Auto as a government and policy administrator, there’s an additional need to address skepticism of an opportunity that some would say seems too good to be true.
“The difficulty we’re having is there’s so many gimmicks out there,” Middleton said, referring to scams that circulate in the mail or online.
To dispel any doubt, Maryland Auto officials have visited churches, coalitions, commissions and minority groups to promote the program.
As of early November, McCurdy said, 11,555 of the approximate 308,000 people had capitalized on the opportunity. With those payments, the program recovered over $2 million in unpaid fines, while forgiving over $8 million of the Central Collection Unit’s $816 million in outstanding debts estimated in the 2018 legislative analysis.
The MVA, with the assistance of MAIF, now known as Maryland Auto, and Central Collections Unit, administered a similar program in 2017 that forgave 80 percent of an individual’s uninsured debts from before Jan. 1, 2014.
That program resulted in a 5.3% participation rate, 10,234 unique debts paid of the 192,115 outstanding, and recovered approximately $3.9 million.
McCurdy said the 2019 iteration of the program is an improvement of the 2017 edition, which he classified as “overly restrictive.”
One restriction in the previous version was a mandate that the participant had to register a vehicle within six months of paying off 20% of their debt.
“We are trying to take advantage of the lessons learned,” McCurdy said. “People who are living on the economic line shouldn’t be required to pay a fine, then buy a car.”
The MVA and Maryland Auto encouraged people to visit the FineFix page online at finefix.maryland.gov — to check their eligibility for the program ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline.