Mayor Mitch Landrieu-endorsed bill aims to free New Orleans police from investigating minor crashes, but there's big opposition _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, watches the voting board in the House Chamber as 'yes' votes light up green for his HB953 Sunday afternoon. The bill, which would soften the impact of the Common Core academic standards, won final legislative approval on a vote of 70-to-17.The bill is likely to be the most substantive legislation on the subject to emerge from the 2014 session.

A bill in the Legislature that would relieve New Orleans police officers of the duty of investigating many traffic accidents in the city is facing fierce opposition from the state’s insurance industry, which says it relies on law enforcement to determine who is at fault in accidents.

Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, filed House Bill 417 in March on behalf of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, with the goal of freeing up more members of the city’s depleted police force to deal with serious crimes and reduce lengthy response times.

The bill would require the city’s law enforcement officers to investigate only crashes that result in death or injury; involve drivers who do not have or who refuse to provide driver’s licenses, proof of insurance or vehicle registrations; or involve drivers suspected of being under the influence of alcohol, drugs or other controlled substances.

As it stands, state law requires police to investigate any crash, no matter how minor. “By eliminating the mandate that NOPD respond to non-injury vehicle accidents, our police officers will have more flexibility to fight violent crime and not spend valuable manpower on traffic accidents,” city spokesman Hayne Rainey said.

In cases of minor crashes, it already has become a common practice for motorists to trade contact and insurance information and let their insurance companies sort it out, Rainey noted.

The city’s need to reduce the burden on police is all the more acute in the wake of the recent defeat of a higher public safety millage, which would have helped police hire hundreds of additional officers by 2020.

While HB417 was referred to the House’s Judiciary Committee, it has not been given a hearing there, and it again was absent from the committee’s schedule this week. While delays happen for many reasons, they often are a sign that the sponsor has decided a bill does not have enough support to move forward.

Insurance companies and brokers understand the sense in having police focus on serious crimes in times of lean budgets, a spokesman said. However, “The bottom line is that without an official police report it will be very difficult to determine fault in a traffic accident, and therefore it will be very difficult to determine whose insurance is going to pay the claim,” Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of Louisiana Chief Executive Officer Jeff Albright said.

Many lawmakers thus far seem sympathetic to the industry’s position, he added.

Less sympathetic is New Orleans City Councilwoman Stacy Head, who said Monday that state legislators should not be kowtowing to insurance interests.

“HB417 is recommended by experts, it is common sense, and it would result in the equivalent of putting 14 more officers on the streets. If our Legislature bows to the powerful insurance lobby instead of ensuring public safety, we all lose, and the public should be outraged,” she said.

It’s one of the rare times that Head and Landrieu — frequently at odds — have been on the same side of an issue.

The bill is one of several that Landrieu is hoping will pass state lawmakers’ scrutiny. One of them, House Bill 418, also aimed at freeing up police officers’ time, would allow civilians to handle traffic control in the Central Business District.

A separate city program that sought to use civilians to monitor traffic and quality-of-life issues in the French Quarter has been terminated, city officials said last week, due in part to legal limits on their authority and a need to divert funding to other public safety priorities.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.