Image: Police officer and an uninsured driver © Brand X Pictures, Getty Images

In practice, every state requires drivers to have auto insurance, and scofflaws are punished with big fines and black marks on their driving records.

In theory, though, there are exceptions. New Hampshire doesn't require car insurance, but it does require that you be able to immediately cover the cost of any damages you cause. Of course, unless you're rich enough to write a check, the only way to do that is through car insurance.

Then there are Virginia and South Carolina, where you can pay the state about $500 to legally drive without auto insurance.

If a police officer pulls you over and you don't have insurance, you show proof that you've paid the annual uninsured motorist fee, and you won't be ticketed for driving without insurance or face all of the fines and court costs that usually accompany such a crime. You may still get ticketed for the original offense that caused the officer to pull you over, but you won't get cited for not having insurance.

You're also still liable for the damage you cause.

Pay your money and take your chances

The $550 uninsured motorist fee, as it's called in South Carolina, doesn't buy the user any insurance, and the driver is still liable for damages if he or she is at fault in an accident.

"You have to pay it every year. It's just not the smartest way to go," says Beth Parks, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles. It's enough money that "you can insure a vehicle for less than that," says Parks. "It doesn't really give them much of anything."

Then why would anyone buy it?

Doug Barry, a personal injury attorney in Virginia, says the $500 fee for Virginia's uninsured motor vehicle registration might be cheaper for someone who doesn't have any assets to lose but wants to drive legally.

"Once you pay the fee, you're good to go, other than being liable," Barry says. Uninsured drivers in Virginia who cause an accident -- whether or not these drivers have paid the UMV fee -- are liable for damages, but it may be impossible to get money out of them if they don't own much, Barry says.

Or it may be that someone who pays the fee to drive legally without insurance thinks that the monthly insurance premium isn't worth the cost. "People never think they'll get in an accident, I guess," says Melanie Stokes, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. "Why pay this monthly fee if you never use it?"

Few takers in either state

Of 5.4 million drivers who were licensed this past fiscal year in Virginia, 2,425 paid the voluntary fee.

Virginia's UMV fee has been around since 1958. The state also requires drivers caught without insurance, or who have paid the UMV fee, to carry an SR-22 certificate for three years once they rejoin the world of the insured.

In South Carolina, 41 people have paid the uninsured motorist fee since it started in 1999, Parks says. Drivers who don't pay the fee or have insurance can be fined $200 if they let their insurance lapse. They can also be charged up to $200 more at $5 per day for every day it remains lapsed, she says.

South Carolina has a list of requirements to become a legal uninsured driver, the first being that every driver in the household must have a driver's license for three or more years before anyone in the household can qualify to become legally uninsured.

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