On August 3rd, 35-year-old Maria Leyva-Martinez drove her vehicle across the center lines on Highway 153 and killed a man. He was a husband and a father of three. She (Martinez) was drunk and uninsured. She has been charged with driving under the influence, vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment, failure to maintain lane, driving left of center line, violation of the financial responsibility law, and driving without driver’s license/expired license.
This apparently was not Ms. Martinez’s first run-in with the law. In April of this year, a Maria L. Martinez (also age 35) was charged with violation of the financial responsibility law and expired registration. In May, Ms. Martinez was given a golden opportunity: those charges were dismissed “on good behavior” (meaning that as long as she didn’t break any more laws for a period of time, she would not go to jail, pay a fine, or even have a criminal record). Tragically, Ms. Martinez wasted that opportunity, continued to drive without insurance, and compounded her recklessness by driving drunk.
This happens far too often: in 2010, 10,288 people were killed in drunk driving crashes in this country. That equates, on average, to a person being killed by a drunk driver every 51 minutes. Drunk driving accounts for 1 in 3 deaths on American roadways each year. Many drunk drivers are repeat offenders. According to a report issued by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, there were a total of 137,183 arrests for DUI between 2002 and 2007. Twenty-one percent of those offenders were re-arrested for violating the DUI law at least two times during that time period, and 34% of the repeat offenses occurred within 0-6 months of the original arrest date. Drunk drivers are one of the greatest dangers on our roads. To add insult to injury, the people irresponsible enough to drive drunk are often the same people driving with little or no liability insurance.
Under Tennessee law, a driver is only required to carry liability insurance in the amount of $25,000 for injury to or death of one person, $50,000 for injury to or death of two or more people in any one accident, and $10,000 for damage to property in any one accident. In a wreck with even moderate injuries, those coverage limits can be consumed very quickly by medical bills and lost wages. In a serious wreck with catastrophic injuries, the minimum liability insurance required by law may cover only a small fraction of the medical bills and other expenses of the innocent victim and his or her family. To make matters worse, many drivers do not carry any liability insurance at all. And, in the case of Ms. Martinez and others, even a prior citation and a trip to court is not enough to get their attention and cause them to take basic responsibility.
I don’t sell insurance, but I always give my family and friends this advice: to protect yourself from the countless people like Ms. Martinez who drive drunk and without insurance, buy as much uninsured/underinsured ("UM") insurance coverage as you can afford. In Tennessee, insurance companies are required by law to offer UM coverage in the amount equal to your automobile liability coverage limits. For example, if you purchase an auto insurance policy that provides you with $300,000 of liability coverage for bodily injuries caused by you, then your insurance company must offer you the option of buying $300,000 of UM coverage. Compared to health insurance and life insurance, UM insurance is very cheap: even a million-dollar policy may cost only $30 a month. Until people such as Ms. Martinez stop drunk-driving and ignoring the insurance laws, this is the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family.
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Check the arrest reports for our region on any given day and you will find scores of individuals that have an invalid license, no insurance, etc. It's epidemic and growing worse. I doubt if these individuals have health insurance either.
In Tennessee, if a driver without insurance hits you, the judge will charge them with the responsibility of paying you back for damages, but it means nothing at that point because if they ignore you, nothing happens to them. You have to pay to take them to civil court. You have to pay to have the court summons delivered to them. If your insurance company decides to take them to court, it might take months or even close to the end of the statute of limitations before they act.
I was at a local Tennessee traffic court with a friend a few years ago and the judge granted each one of them that were there for financial responsibility charges an extended period of time to obtain insurance and bring proof back to court. A few of them had been cited in the same court just a few months before for the same violation. The had received a "pass" on the previous occasion also.
You want to know about my record? I have never driven any vehicle I owned without proper license, registration, plates, decal, insurance, etc. I thought it was the law and never considered it an option.
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A prosecutor friend of mine told me that it's almost impossible to put people in jail, since jail space is at such a premium.
If we are going to have these harsh penalties, we should have the capability of punishment. We would need to double our prison space to incarcerate all of these DUI offenses.