Harshest and Weakest State Laws Against Driving Uninsured

If you're an American driver, odds are that your state's laws require you to be covered by an auto insurance policy before getting behind the wheel.

Despite this fact, it's been projected that tens of millions of drivers are on the road uninsured each year. The Insurance Research Council, for example, estimated that about 13.8 percent of America's motorists were uninsured in 2009. That would mean about 1 out of every 7 drivers on the road was without a policy that year.

Those millions of uninsured drivers are at risk of getting cited for breaking state laws every time they pull onto a public roadway, but the consequences for being in the driver's seat without coverage vary widely from state to state. Penalties for a first offense range from under a hundred dollars to thousands of dollars plus license suspensions, with varying degrees of harshness in between.

To see how widely they vary, we researched every state's laws and compiled a complete list of uninsured penalties by state. Then we weighed all of them to see which had the harshest and weakest penalties for drivers who flout state coverage laws.

The Five Harshest:

RankStatePenalty for 1st Offense
1.New Jersey$300-$1,000 fine, 1-year license suspension, and community service
2.Delaware$1,500-$2,000 fine and 6-month license suspension
3.Kentucky$500-$1,000 fine and 6-month license suspension
4.Illinois$600-$1,100 in fines and fees, plus 3-month license suspension
5.ArizonaMinimum $500 fine, plus 3-month license and registration suspensions

The Five Weakest:

RankStatePenalty for 1st Offense
1.Idaho$75 fine
2.North Carolina$100 in fines and fees, plus registration suspension until coverage is in place
3.Arkansas$50-$270 in fines and fees, plus registration suspension until coverage is in place
4.New MexicoMaximum $300 fine
5.Vermont$250-$500 fine

These rankings are based on the criteria that receiving a sizeable fine coupled with a lengthy license-suspension period is the worst-case scenario.

There are definitely states where the maximum fines exceed the ones in our top five. In West Virginia, for example, the fine for driving uninsured can be as high as $5,000, but, on the other hand, the minimum fine there is a mere $200, and the license-suspension period is 30 days or less. And when we contacted a West Virginia DMV manager, she said that in her 20-plus years of working for the DMV, she had never seen a full criminal penalty of $5,000 assessed for driving without coverage.

Common Consequences

In most states, the set maximum/minimum fine is between $500 and $550. Fifteen states have penalties in that range. The next most-common amount is $1,000, which was the maximum fine in seven states.

A small majority of states (29 total) explicitly stated that there was a license suspension period for getting caught on the road without insurance for the first time. The longest suspension period for a first offense was New Jersey, which takes away the offender's right to drive for a full year. For a second offense, New Jersey law requires the license to be suspended for two whole years, and it's only returned at the discretion of state officials.

Variable Penalties

A handful of laws included penalties that are based on how long the driver went without having coverage in place.

In Maryland and Washington, D.C., for instance, the initial fine for driving without coverage is $150 if it's for a period of 30 days or less. But if the uninsured period exceeds a month, the driver will have to pay another $7 fine for each day the car is uncovered, up to $2,500.

Nevada also has a variable penalty. For a first offense, uninsured periods of 30 days or less only demand a $250 reinstatement fee. But if the period is between 31 and 90 days, another $250 fine is tacked on. The fine increases with time, and if the lapse is for 180 days or more, total fines and fees come in at $1,250 for a first-time violator.

Towing Uninsured Cars

In addition to having to pay the mandated fines, uninsured drivers in some states may also have their cars impounded and be required to pay for applicable towing and storage fees. The car insurance laws in at least four states—Iowa, California, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania-explicitly state that cars can be towed on a first offense if their driver lacks proper coverage. More states allow for towing if it's a second or subsequent offense. Others may allow towing of uninsured cars but do not explicitly state it in the law, instead interpreting the absence of a ban on towing uninsured cars as authorization to do so.

Other Consequences of Driving Uninsured

The reason lawmakers push for such harsh penalties for driving uninsured is that getting hit by an uninsured motorist can wreak havoc on unsuspecting victims' lives. Unless a driver has uninsured motorist coverage, getting hit by a motorist without a policy could mean that they suddenly have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to get back on their feet, out of no fault of their own.   

And car insurance helps protect the policyholder from possible financial ruin as well. Uninsured motorists who cause an accident may be on the hook for any hospital or repair bills that result from it, which could amount to hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. "To pay for the damages, your home, car, and other assets could be taken away from you. Your present and future wages could be garnished," the Ohio Department of Insurance warns drivers in its consumer guide. "You and your family could end up paying for one accident for the rest of your life!" Rather than risk fines, suspensions, and possibly huge financial burden, it's simply more prudent to get auto insurance quotes and get covered by a policy.