Live Stop, Dead Cars
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
City lots are filling up with seized vehicles.
If you’re one of the nearly 31,000 Philadelphians whose car was confiscated under the city’s Live Stop program, you’re probably already familiar with the contents of this story and have started cursing under your breath while reading it on public transportation. For many others, some questions remain: Whose car gets taken? How do you get it back? And what ever happened to the promise that auto-insurance premiums would drop, since not even a penny has been deducted so far?
Here are the hard numbers. Between last July, when the administration started enforcing Live Stop, and the end of May, 30, 909 cars had been confiscated from drivers without a valid license and/or an up-to-date registration. The program is administered by the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which hauls away the cars and stores them in five lots across the city.
There they wait for owners to reclaim them after paying the necessary fees and acquiring the proper paperwork. That means you have to pay up any tickets and fines, the state's $36 vehicle registration fee, and of course, get some insurance. If no one stakes their claim, the car is auctioned off to the highest bidder. Parking Authority spokesperson Richard Dickson says confiscated cars go to the highest bidder in about a month, which officials consider enough time for owners to get their paperwork in order.
Allaying concerns that the PPA may run out of room to store the growing number of confiscated autos, Dickson says it has already bought five extra lots to meet the demand.
"We can handle the job," Dickson says. "We have the space and the good cars are being sold at a decent clip." But what about the not-so-good cars? It's no secret that a fair number of seizures aren't worth the gas left in their tanks.
"The ones we can't sell at auction to individual owners or dealers we sell for salvage. Scrap metal and salvage guys buy them in lots of 25 for as little as $25 apiece," he says. Seized cars sold at auction have a minimum $300 bid and are sold as is. There are rarely keys, so winning bidders need to tow the cars home, get a locksmith to open the door and have new keys made. Then, they have to get the car registered, inspected and insured. All that, and there's little information about the car's condition. Since there are few guarantees, if the car has serious problems, the winning bidder purchased a large lawn ornament.
Dickson says 14,925 cars seized since Live Stop started have been reclaimed while 21,475 were auctioned. ("I know that comes to more than the 30,909," Dickson explains, "but the vehicles we already had in our lots when Live Stop started were counted in those numbers.")
The goal, says Dickson, is getting unsafe drivers and cars off the road, thereby lowering everybody else's insurance rates.
"When the city asked the insurance companies for relief, this is what they said they wanted so we're doing that, and so far, the program has been a success," he says. "Now it's time to hold their feet to the fire and make sure that we get the relief they promised. We're doing our part. It's up to our elected officials to make the insurance companies do theirs."
Several officials are doing just that. Two months ago, Mayor Street formed an auto insurance rate reduction task force, and has gone on record saying that he thinks Philadelphians are getting shafted.
"It's the mayor's contention that the auto insurance rates are unjustifiably high, given the insurance companies' own loss ratios and risk factors," says Street spokesperson Barbara Grant. "We've created the new consumer advocate position and even taken the insurance companies to court. We're also working with the state's insurance commissioner to lay out our case. We're going to press in every court we can and every way we can to get relief for Philadelphia drivers."
The State Insurance Department agrees that Live Stop is a clear signal to insurance companies that the city is serious about getting something done but says the unusually high percentage of medical claims resulting from Philly auto accidents inflates insurance premiums.
"People are at a greater risk of being involved in an accident in Philadelphia, and it's more costly to make human and vehicle repairs," says State Insurance Department spokesperson Rosanne Placey. "But having fewer uninsured drivers means that consumers may feel more comfortable omitting the uninsured motorist component of the coverage, creating a savings."