It’s been a month since the Metropolitan Police Department stopped responding to non-injury fender benders, and Las Vegans are still unsure what to make of the change. To some, it’s a wise, long-overdue policy move that saves police resources. To others, it’s an act of idiocy that, by depriving the accident scene of an impartial party, invites deceit, litigiousness and conflict.
Metro officials announced that the change would open an additional 250 hours a week for traffic officers—whose numbers are stretched thin and figure to get thinner with the defeat of a plan to raise taxes to pay for more police—to concentrate on enforcing laws. Tick Segerblom, an attorney who chairs the State Senate Judiciary Committee, saw no need for legislative changes in response, adding, “Having cops waste time writing accident reports and issuing tickets isn’t a good use of precious resources. The drivers and/or their insurance companies can figure out who’s responsible and who should pay. I think this decision by Metro is way overdue.”
Segerblom isn’t alone in making a case for individual responsibility. William Sousa, a UNLV criminal justice professor who specializes in police policy and community crime prevention, says the 911 system has changed police work. “When we think back to times before 911, citizens had to deal with a lot of community problems on their own. When 911 came in, police sold the citizens so well on it that then in any of life’s problems, they call the police,” Sousa says. “But when you have other problems to deal with in the community, something has to give.”
This could, though, be a case of solving one problem by creating another. After 20 years as a personal-injury attorney, Lawrence Mittin of Craig P. Kenny & Associates sees a common problem at the heart of fender-bender disputes: Insurance companies would rather not pay a claim. “Now you don’t even have the factor of the police coming in,” he says. “You’re still going to have these disputes where it would help to have the neutral third party, the authority.”
If people aren’t thinking fast enough to take photos at the scene, then it comes down to the honor system—and that is unlikely to work. “People lie all the time when they’re at fault for accidents,” Mittin says. “With this new system, you’re giving them more ammunition to lie through their teeth.” While Metro will respond to larger accidents or injuries, Mittin wonders how to define “fender benders”—what constitutes a “minor” accident will depend, he says, on what those involved tell the police if they call it in.
At least one Las Vegas law firm has been advertising that it will send a representative to the accident scene—but that adds a potentially adversarial element to a situation in which motorists already feel shaken and exposed. It also raises the specter of a litigation arms race: If one side is calling a law firm to the scene, the other side doesn’t really have much choice but to do the same. Drivers, one could imagine, would start carrying the business cards of personal-injury attorneys along with their insurance cards.
Police departments in Philadelphia, Chicago and several major California cities have adopted similar policies of ignoring fender benders. The returns aren’t in yet on how well this has worked, but those jurisdictions are in states with stronger regulatory systems than Nevada’s. For instance, both California and Nevada require liability insurance, but California takes the extra step of limiting the damages an uninsured driver can seek from another driver—a strong incentive, Mittin says, to play by the rules, get insured and provide true information at the accident site. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, is one of the nation’s 12 no-fault states, in which each party is reimbursed by his or her own insurance, reducing the need for claims adjusters to litigate.
Because Nevada isn’t a no-fault state, liability has to be assigned. “Whoever is more than 50 percent liable is at fault for the accident,” Nevada Division of Insurance spokesman Jake Sunderland says. “That’s something insurance companies always work out. That’s what the claims process is for. A police report might be a component, but the lack of a report doesn’t mean an insurance company won’t be able to decide fault.” (The division has posted online tips for drivers involved in a fender bender.)
It remains to be seen how the policy will play out in Southern Nevada. One crucial factor is that other police departments in Clark County—Henderson and North Las Vegas, for example—haven’t adopted the no-response fender-bender policy. And then there’s politics: A new sheriff will take office in 2015, and most of the candidates have criticized Metro’s decision. The policy could end up being what fender benders usually are: a minor headache that passes quickly.