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The police and the insurance industry are turning to IT in a new crackdown on the UK's one million uninsured motorists. Eighty insurance companies and brokers have invested £20m to create a computer system that will hold the insurance records of every driver in the UK.
Police will be able to call up the Motor Insurance Database through a link with the Police National Computer to instantly check drivers' insurance records from the roadside.
The police believe the system could lead to a dramatic reduction in the number of uninsured drivers on the road. A similar initiative in the Netherlands has virtually eliminated the problem.
Until the database went online earlier this year, the only way for the police to check whether a driver had valid insurance was to ask them to produce their documents at a police station. The new system could save police forces £10m in administration costs.
"It is a first step towards a complete drivers database, which we hope will eventually replace the current resource-intensive system of requiring drivers to produce documents at police stations," said Meredydd Hughes, assistant chief constable of Greater Manchester.
Research suggests that people who fail to pay their motor insurance are also likely to infringe the law in other ways. Once they discover an uninsured driver, officers will want to give the vehicle a thorough inspection and will ask to see what is in the boot, said Hughes.
Insurers realised the need for a database in 1994, when the cost to the industry in compensating car-owners for accidents caused by uninsured drivers broke through the £100m barrier. They created a new body, the Motor Insurers' Information Centre (MIIC) to manage the project.
Experian won the contract to supply the database, and Commslogic provided technical project and programme management.
Melanie Malcolm, project manager at Experian, said, "The hardest challenge was to co-ordinate 70-plus insurers, receiving data from them and getting it tested and up and running."
The MIIC asked the insurers to sign up to 19 project milestones with deadlines for agreeing their project plans, completing development and testing. The task was complicated by the fact that the insurers used many incompatible systems - everything from IBM mid-range AS/400s and Unix systems to PCs running Windows NT.
Ian Witham, technical services manager at the MIIC, said, "Some of the larger insurers have had to integrate lots of internal systems that they collected through mergers and acquisitions. Some have had to integrate data from their brokers. The largest we are aware of had 53 subsystems."
The database is the first to to connect to the Police National Computer. To protect sensitive data passing between insurers and the police the Police Information Technology Organisation audited the work. "They wanted to completely reassure themselves of security at all levels. We had to supply network diagrams and all sorts of documentation," said Malcolm.
Experian offered the insurers a selection of routes to connect to the database, including a variety of direct dial-up protocols, ISDN links, and connections through an Internet portal.
The group has limited access to the system to registered users, who must access the database through a registered terminal. Access is protected by passwords and registered user names. The XML Web interface, which will go online shortly, uses public key infrastructure.
The MIIC worked with the Office of the Information Commissioner to assess the data protection implications of the new system. The commissioner ruled that the data should only be accessed by number plate registration. This ruled out the possibility of datamining by the insurers to gather insurance statistics or by the police for gathering criminal intelligence.
Insurers believe the project could pay for itself in less than two years. Since 1994 the cost of claims from motorists involved in accidents with uninsured drivers has risen from £100m to £400m. Just a 2% fall in the number of accidents involving uninsured drivers would cover the cost of setting up the database.
The system is already helping insurers to speed up claims processing, said Witham. The database holds 22 million records. Over the coming months, the MIIC plans to add a further five million records from companies with commercial car fleets. The current practice is for insurers and brokers to cover fleets without recording the registration details of each vehicle.
The Government plans to make reporting vehicle registrations compulsory for fleet owners. In the meantime, insurers will ask fleet owners to disclose the information voluntarily, by posting registration details via the database's Web interface.
Ultimately, the system will hold more than 60 million records - enough to allow insurers to process claims up to three years old.
With the exception of the Metropolitan Police and the RUC, all the UK's police forces have access to the database. The insurance industry is working with the RUC on the creation of a separate database for Northern Ireland. The Metropolitan Police is modifying its IT systems to meet some data protection concerns before it connects. Forces will access the system either from terminals in their vehicles or by radio requests to their control rooms.
Eventually, the Home Office plans to use the database to allow motorists to fill in road tax and registration details online. It also plans to extend the database to record road tax and MOT details as part of the Government's commitment to offering online services by 2005.