Anyone who owns a car will be familiar with that sinking feeling when the insurance reminder arrives in the post.
Most of us pay it, recognising that if we crash our cars and injure ourselves or another person, the insurance is in place to foot the bill.
But, according to Northamptonshire Police, there are hundreds of drivers in the county flouting the law and taking their chances on the road without any valid insurance.
The police have now launched a crackdown on uninsured drivers and in January alone 229 vehicles were seized for not having insurance by officers across the county.
I spent a morning with Pc Dave Lee, of the Operations Tactical Unit, to find out more about how illegal, uninsured drivers are routed out.
Sitting in the police car I watch as different coloured bars appear on a screen, each one a car which has been highlighted by the force control room at Wootton Hall as having been flagged up by one of the many Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras (ANPR).
Pc Lee explained: “ANPR was first introduced in 2001 and we were the first force to get it. It was a pilot and a massive success, we have been using it since then.
“There are dedicated cameras, as well as CCTV cameras, that have software enabled to allow them to point at vehicles, look at number plates, work out what the numbers are and, as soon as they have worked out what the numbers are, they check them against at least 55 databases. Within a fraction of a second they are checked against these databases, including a national insurance database and against the police national computer, to see whether vehicles have been used in crime or stolen.
“If your vehicle hits one of these databases, it flashes up in our control room and in our cars.”
He continued: “In Northamptonshire, the ANPR system picks up 220,000 registration numbers a day across the county and 6,500 of these will be of interest to the police. A proportion of these will be uninsured.
“They worked out that if we put every police officer in uniform in our cars they still wouldn’t have enough officers in the county to stop all the vehicles of interest to the police.”
At the moment there is focused work being carried out to follow up on uninsured driver alerts.
Pc Lee said: “They wanted to do a crackdown on uninsured vehicles. We have had someone dedicated to that in the control room and we still have that person giving out ANPR hits. So, if a vehicle flashes up on the system, the controller will look at that and will read it and give it out over the radio.”
Every motorist on the road is legally required to have insurance and, according to the Motor Insurers’ Bureau, 70 per cent of motorists without insurance have a criminal record.
According to Pc Lee, responding to no-insurance alerts can often lead to other crimes being uncovered.
“There is a percentage of the criminal element using vehicles uninsured,” he explained. “Quite often something like a lack of insurance will lead to the discovery of other things, like they might not have a licence or tax. Quite often we will get a disqualified driver.
“We had one on the motorway, it was an uninsured vehicle. We sent a traffic car to junction 16, they found the vehicle and not only was it uninsured, there was no MoT and the driver was wanted for various different offences.”
Uninsured driving is said to cost this country £500 million every year, adding £30 to every honest motorist’s annual premium.
It seems that many drivers are willing to risk the penalty of being caught uninsured, which now stand at six points on the licence and a £200 fine. But this basic penalty could even rise to time in prison if an uninsured driver causes a serious accident.
Pc Lee explained that uninsured drivers vary from those who perhaps miss a direct debit payment and do not realise they are no longer insured, to those who will deliberately set out to deceive the police, perhaps by registering for insurance, gaining an insurance certificate and then cancelling afterwards. What many of these criminals do not realise is that the police’s databases allow them to instantly know if someone is still registered as insured with a company, regardless of what paperwork they may have.
Pc Lee said: “We have people who know full well they have no insurance, but who will think they are being clever and will tell you they are insured. They will give you a certificate and think it is okay, they might even wave it in front of your face and say ‘I’m insured.’ But we know they have no insurance. They have contacted the insurance company but then, once the insurance certificate comes, they cancel their insurance, so in fact the insurance certificate isn’t worth the paper it is written on.
“Then you have the other type of uninsured driver who will have been paying by direct debit and for one reason or another has missed a payment and the company has cancelled it.”
During my morning with the police, no uninsured drivers were found, although we did stop and warn a speeding driver in Northampton and had to stop another driver who had changed his registration to a personalised number plate and neglected to update his insurance details.
But, according to Pc Lee, he can typically stop 15 or 16 vehicles in one shift for not having insurance. And the general procedure is to seize all uninsured vehicles that have been stopped.
Drivers can then either sign the vehicle over to be crushed or sold at auction, or they have 14 days to claim it back, presenting the relevant documents at a police station. They also have to pay a retrieval fee and storage charge.
“If it is a good car and you want it back you have 14 days to claim that vehicle back. Then, if you don’t claim it back in 14 days, it can be crushed or sold at auction. We had 11 seized on Saturday and one was signed over, the driver didn’t want it back.”
There are storage sites for seized vehicles located across the county, with two in Northampton itself.
Pc Lee said: “To get your vehicle back you have to provide motor insurance, a V5 and driving licence; that has to be produced at a police station.”
“It is interesting sometimes what people will say and those people who pretend to have insurance, although the minority of people pretend they are insured. Sometimes, even if we find they have no insurance, they still argue over it.”