Smartphones are amazing. Now they can get you out of a ticket.
Thirty-one states now allow drivers to show electronic proof of insurance coverage during a traffic stop, according to the Property Casualty Insurance Association of America (PCI). Rather than root around in your glovebox for an insurance card (that you may or may not have remembered to replace with the new one), you simply hand the officer your phone.
Those states include Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
You trust a lot of your life to a phone. Why not your insurance, too?
But what exactly am I showing them?
No one's nailed down exactly what constitutes acceptable electronic proof of insurance. California's law, for example, reads simply that "evidence of financial responsibility may be provided using a mobile electronic device."
A California Highway Patrol officer we spoke with said the preference was for an official-looking proof of insurance, such as a PDF from your insurer stored on your electronic device or an insurance card downloaded from your insurer's mobile application. However, since the law doesn't specifically exclude a picture of your insurance ID card that is stored on your phone, he said, it should be accepted by officers as valid proof of auto insurance.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety representative gave a similar answer.
When you compare car insurance companies, ask what options they offer customers.
You may be tempted to just gin something up. Don't. Faking an insurance card is a crime. In Nebraska, for example, fabricating an insurance card is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. (See "Did you buy fake car insurance?")
And a fake card won't do you much good in many states, because you can't outrun the Internet. Real-time verification systems allow law enforcement officers to check for insurance coverage against the car's license plate in a few seconds.
The worst that could happen is …
Driving without proof of insurance is very different from driving without insurance.
CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner notes that failure to provide proof of insurance typically results in a fix-it ticket that doesn't affect car insurance rates much, if at all. "Show the court adequate proof and the violation is usually dismissed," she says. "It's a minor offense at worst."
Even so, Gusner recommends that you continue to carry a paper version in your car as backup in case you are pulled over by an officer unaware of the new law -- or be unlucky enough to have a dead smartphone.
A no-insurance conviction is very different and can result in a big fine and a suspension of your driver's license and vehicle registration. When you finally do buy a policy, Gusner says, you'll pay much higher rates. (See "Getting insured again: How expensive?")