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Police Department's no-report accident policy reduces tickets, raises concerns

Tuesday, February 28, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:41 a.m. CST, Tuesday, February 28, 2012
John Donelon is unnerved by a change in a Columbia Police Department policy. The policy, changed two years ago, no longer requires the police to write a citation for an accident that is non-injury or non-towing. Donelon was in an accident in January and had to go through a frustrating process that would have been made easier if a police report had been filed.

COLUMBIA — A 2009 Columbia police procedural change that lets officers walk away from non-injury accidents without writing a report has resulted in a 48 percent decrease in the number of tickets written for moving violations resulting in an accident.

The change in the department's procedure for responding to traffic accidents, which went into effect in November 2009, allows an officer to "clear" a 911 call — that is, respond to a call and return without writing a report — if there are no injuries and no need for a tow truck, regardless of the estimated damage to the vehicles.

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At least one citizen has gone public with his concerns about that change — John Donelon, 75, who talked to the City Council about the police department's procedure and his own experience after a traffic accident at its Feb. 6 meeting. His statement prompted the council to ask for a report from Police Chief Ken Burton on the new procedure, its rationale and the cost of resuming accident reporting.

"Accidents don't just happen," Donelon told council members. "They normally occur as the result of negligence, carelessness or inattention of another driver."

Donelon said the procedural change to the police department's traffic policy is a disservice to drivers in Columbia, and that it doesn't do enough to discourage bad driving.

"If an officer cannot make a citation even though there was a violation, how will points be assessed to this dangerous driver's record?" Donelon said. "When a citation is never written for drivers on the brink of their license being revoked, they remain behind the wheel and a danger to motorists." 

Such a scenario is possible, said Max Miller, claim manager at Cornerstone National Insurance Company headquartered in Columbia. "Any driver can break any law, like running a red light, and if they end up in a ditch, they can get their friend to help out and there is no report made to us," he said. "If a collision is caused, and the driver and the victim agree not to involve the police or their insurance agencies, it is as if the collision never happened."

Miller said drivers are unlikely to report accidents to their insurance company if they are at fault in the accident. That's because their coverage rates and collision deductible will go up.

Instead they will attempt to settle with the other party for the costs of repairs, circumventing their insurance companies. If there is no report by the police or the drivers, the party responsible can keep his or her driving record clean for his or her current coverage plan and future insurer, Miller said.

A serious accident

On Jan. 16, Donelon's vehicle suffered about $1,500 in damage when a vehicle in the opposite lane crossed the dividing line and side swiped his truck, running him off the road.

The driver of the other vehicle called 911, and a Columbia police officer arrived. Donelon said the the officer checked licenses, verified both drivers' insurance and, when contact information had been exchanged by the drivers, started to walk away.

"Hey, wait a minute," Donelon said to the officer, wondering why the other driver hadn't received a ticket.

Donelon said the officer told him if he made a citation report for the accident, he would have to make a report for the Statewide Traffic Accident Records System as well. The officer explained that Columbia police procedure did not require him to file an accident report because neither driver was injured, nor did the vehicles need to be towed away.

The next day, Donelon received a call from the other driver's insurance adjustor at Safeco Insurance who asked immediately for a copy of the police report from the accident.

Explaining that there wasn't one, Donelon then obtained a copy of his 911 call and a statement from a neutral witness. With the other driver's statement and Donelon's eyewitness testimony, Safeco Insurance decided in favor of Donelon and covered repairs to his truck.  

Donelon said he felt very fortunate to have a witness come forward who was willing to corroborate his story. But he's worried about other drivers in Columbia who don't know how they need to handle non-injury accidents to avoid paying out of pocket for an accident that was not their fault.

Policy and procedure

According to Missouri law, all law enforcement officers who investigate traffic accidents on public roads resulting in injury or greater than $500 in apparent property damage are required to submit a report of the incident to the Missouri State Highway Patrol superintendent. Officers don't have to report accidents on private property like parking lots. Accident reports are maintained and recorded in the Statewide Traffic Accident Records System by the state highway patrol Traffic Records Division.

The Boone Country Sheriff's Department, MU Police Department and the Missouri State Highway Patrol strictly comply with the state statute and file complete reports for every traffic accident, no exceptions. 

When Columbia police respond to these minor traffic collisions, a Computer Aided Dispatcher generates a record of the 911 call that contains the date, time and location of the accident's occurrence. No other official document is available for evidence, as the dispatcher system only stores information about 911 calls, and not the investigations or findings.

Making sure repairs are covered

Miller, the claim manager, said "police accident reports are often valuable tools in making a decision on an insurance claim, but it is not the only tool available and sometimes not available at all." 

When there is no accident report made, insurance adjustors at Cornerstone open an investigation into the client's claim, gather evidence like debris, skid marks left at the scene, photos and eyewitness statements, and make diagrams, Miller said. The length of the process depends on witness availability, which is why Miller suggests getting a third-party witness's statement at the time of the accident, when memories are clearest. 

"The adjustors always attempt to make the best decision possible on the basis of their available evidence," Miller said. If the investigation finds the insured client at fault in the accident, the agency will authorize a payment to the other party's insurance provider. The insured driver will have to pay his or her collision deductible out of pocket and might also end up paying a higher premium.

Dennis Baggett of Naught-Naught Agency said the best action in the absence of police records of an accident is to make a verbal report of the incident in person at the police department. Sometimes called a walk-in report, it's not required for claim resolution, but it is in a driver's best interest to complete the process with the other party present, Baggett said.

A time-consuming process

During comments at the close of the Feb. 6 council meeting where the police procedure was discussed, Mayor Bob McDavid asked Burton to explain why the accident reporting policy of the police department was altered in 2009.

Burton explained that "a manual accident report to document this accident — it takes two and a half to three hours of the officer's time drawing diagrams." 

Burton told the council that an "accident that doesn't have injury or major property damage is basically a civil matter between the two parties." So, when the police department was looking for ways to reduce officers' workload, completing accident reports was "identified as things we do a lot of that we don't really get a payback from," he said. 

He pointed out that this strategy for reducing paperwork costs is already being used in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas. 

McDavid responded that he felt "uneasy about not offering the service" of accident reports to citizens. Fifth Ward Councilwoman Helen Anthony motioned to request a report from Burton on the increase in costs for staff and resources that would be needed to resume accident reporting, as well as the benefits of eliminating the requirement in 2009. McDavid seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously.

Burton declined to comment further on the procedure change until his report is finished and presented to the council. He could not say when that would take place. 


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Comments

Ed Lane February 28, 2012 | 12:09 p.m.

What the heck is this chief being paid for????? Officers not making reports on auto accidents basically means his officers are not doing their job!!!!!!!!!
I guess the chief's salary would dictate that $1,500 worth of damamge is not "major damage"!!!!!! Give me a break PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!

(Report Comment)
John Schultz February 28, 2012 | 1:31 p.m.

It's called doing what he can with the resources he's given. If you want accident reports, sound like you need to bug the council to shift money from another department, raise taxes, or have the police stop doing some other task instead of griping here.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders February 28, 2012 | 1:46 p.m.

Accident reporting, like all other services, has an associated cost. Personally, I don't want to pay people who are far too costly (a.k.a. "valuable") for that service when there are plenty of other people who can do it more efficiently, like an insurance adjustor, as noted in this story.

People just need to learn that when they get into an accident, they need to contact their insurance company immediately.

On another note, I'm pleased to see the CPD addressing personnel costs. Now, if they'd only get rid of the "papers please" checkpoints and the associated overtime they use to pad their retirement pay...

(Report Comment)
John Schultz February 28, 2012 | 4:24 p.m.

Something it would have been nice to see in the story is the relative costs of community service aides (if CPD still has them) and if they are still responding to accidents. I know when I was rear-ended a few years ago, a CSA showed up instead of a police officer to take the report.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle February 28, 2012 | 7:31 p.m.

Has it been that long ago? The last time I was involved in an accident in Columbia, a CSA officer came and made a report. That's always the first thing the insurance company asks for is the police report number. I know they stopped requiring that one of the drivers get a citation well before 2009; the reasoning I always heard was that the insurance companies ended up determining liability anyway, so the citation was meaningless in the context of accident liability.

I guess that last fender bender I was involved in was before they stopped even making a report (sure doesn't seem that long ago, but thinking back, I guess it was). In my case, I called the non-emergency number specifically to have a police report for the insurance company. A CSA officer showed up and did the paperwork so I had the magic number. But, I still had to tell the story to the insurance agent, and they were clearly asking me questions to make a liability determination themselves.

I guess this is just one more brick in the wall of governmental impotency. The insurance companies - i.e. the money - calls all the shots these days. A cop's opinion is irrelevant, at least as far as traffic accident liability is concerned.

Moral of the story: do all your own cop work. Take pictures immediately, record audio and/or video with your cellphone if you can, get witness information before they slink away, etc. And, be prepared to make your case to the insurance company. They are the ones that are going to determine liability, not the cops.

(Report Comment)
dave smith February 29, 2012 | 8:17 a.m.

They should at least follow the law-$500 in apparent damage...Change the law, don't, break it.

(Report Comment)
John Spader March 19, 2012 | 10:41 p.m.

Today at 4:45 my 7-month pregnant wife was involved in a two-car accident at Broadway and Keene. The officer on scene was a Community Service Aide. A call was placed to 911 and an ambulance arrived on scene to evaluate my wife and the other party involved. When the "officer" deemed the accident was minor, no one was issued a ticket nor were we given an accident report. A call this evening to the police department was met with the response, "It's between your insurances. We don't make reports on minor accident." I'm not a mechanic but there is certainly at least $1,000 in damages to the front of our car. The other party pulled into the path of my wife while they were attempting to pull into oncoming traffic at the on-ramp. This city policy seems to only help those who create the accident. Too bad my wife was in the right.

(Report Comment)

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