Unexpected stop delivers hard lesson in auto insurance

A late payment in January led to Nnamdi Asogwa's tags being taken and a tow in July. He wonders if this isn't a case of over-surveillance.
A late payment in January led to Nnamdi Asogwa's tags being taken and a tow in July. He wonders if this isn't a case of over-surveillance. (JEFF GELLES / Staff)
Posted: August 11, 2014

Nnamdi Asogwa's green 2010 Camry sits in his Upper Darby driveway, shiny and tagless testimony to the small nightmare he's been living.

Asogwa, 33, is a Nigerian immigrant, and a U.S. citizen since 2011. He has a bachelor's degree in political science, an M.B.A., and a job as a project manager at Siemens Healthcare in Malvern. He also has a story that illustrates, at the very least, the risks of running even slightly afoul of the rules followed by the police, auto insurers, and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

To Asogwa, his experience also reflects some larger issues he'd like to see his adopted country weigh more openly - such as the question of how far we want to travel the road toward becoming a "surveillance state," ignoring every waymarker that new technology allows. But I'm getting ahead of the story.

Let's rewind to July 31, when Asogwa was driving to work on West Chester Pike, wearing a white shirt and a sports coat, and enjoying the summer morning with his window down.

Just past Darby Road, he saw a sight in his rearview mirror that can make anyone a little nervous - especially, let's face it, anyone who's ever been a young black male in America: a police car's flashers.

I should hasten to add that Asogwa doesn't suggest the Haverford Township officer did anything wrong. A police spokesman, Sgt. Shant Bedrossian, says the officer was checking plates as cars stopped at the light - a random survey, in essence, to see what turned up.

Unfortunately for Asogwa, his tags were pay dirt, even if he didn't immediately grasp why. In fact, he was puzzled when the officer delivered the bad news: His car had to be towed, and his tags taken, because his registration was suspended for insurance reasons.

True, Asogwa knew that he had let his Geico policy lapse for nine days in January. He'd been struggling on an intern's salary and sending any spare cash to his family. But when his next check arrived Feb. 1, he immediately paid Geico and thought that problem was behind him.

The irony is the state would have agreed - if it had known. If a policyholder regains coverage within 30 days, and attests to not driving during the lapse, PennDot's position is basically "no harm, no foul." But because of a procedural hiccup, Asogwa didn't realize one thing: It was his job to prove he was back in Geico's good graces.

PennDot's Jan McKnight says Geico did what the law required: It notified the state of the lapse. But since drivers don't necessarily stick with the same company, she says, PennDot expects them to provide proof of new coverage.

How should Asogwa have known? That's the hiccup.

McKnight says PennDot sent a letter Feb. 1 advising Asogwa that it knew of his Geico lapse and that he needed to send new proof of coverage within 30 days. If he didn't, his registration would be suspended for three months.

The trouble is, Asogwa was in the process of moving across the state and says the letter to his Pittsburgh address never found him. Nor did PennDot's March notice of suspension - McKnight says it was returned marked, "forward time expired."

While voicing sympathy for Asogwa, McKnight says state officials acted properly. Drivers have 15 days to advise the state of a change in address.

Asogwa, also struggling as the victim of identity theft, sees the $250 towing bill as a costly lesson in insurance rules, on top of legal fees and the $50 restoration fee he faces because he missed the second PennDot letter.

If he had known all that in January, he says, "maybe I would have asked my cousin to help. I learned the hard way."

Still, he asks whether there are lessons in the march of surveillance technology, such as tag scanners that can check every car that passes "looking for the slightest of infringement" - a device Bedrossian says wasn't used in Asogwa's stop.

McKnight says, "All the Big Brother arguments aside, if you are not breaking the law there would be no consequence."

To Asogwa, that misses a key point: Ubiquitous monitoring has consequences, too. "People all over the world migrate to the United States to avoid such constant surveillance," he says.


jgelles@phillynews.com

215-854-2776 @jeffgelles

www.inquirer.com/consumer

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