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.
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.