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Government Clamping Down on Diplomatic Auto Tag Abuse

January 7, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The snappy red, white and blue license plates springing up on cars around the nation’s capital and elsewhere have an all-American look, but they’re assigned to diplomats in a government attempt to prevent foreigners from flouting U.S. laws.

The State Department began registering all diplomatic vehicles and assigning the license plates to foreigners last August.

The registration and licensing program centralizes a licensing system that had been spread over 28 states and the District of Columbia, all of which have resident foreign diplomats.

″The system was very fragmented before,″ said Ralph Chiocco at the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions. ″You had Joe the Ragman driving around with diplomatic plates.″

Roughly 10,000 cars - an estimated 70 percent of all diplomatic vehicles - have been registered under State’s program. ″We figure we’ve got another 5,000 or 8,000 to go,″ Chiocco said.

About one-third of the cars are in Washington, one-third in New York and one-third in other cities with consulates and foreign diplomats.

″The entire program hinges on two things - driving is a privilege, not a right, and if a person does not have diplomatic immunity, then they don’t fit under the program,″ Chiocco said.

Diplomatic immunity, developed by custom over the ages, was codified in international law in 1961 in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. It shields diplomats around the world from prosecution on civil and criminal charges and forbids intrusion into embassies.

The new licensing requirements apply only to people with diplomatic immunity, not lower ranking officials at the embassies. Those staff members are, like Americans, covered by local and state motor vehicle laws.

Diplomats are required by a 1983 law to buy liability insurance so Americans will have some recourse if they’re injured in accidents involving cars driven by people with diplomatic immunity.

That law was intended to prevent a recurrence of the 1974 traffic accident that left Dr. Halla Brown, a George Washington University professor, paralyzed from the neck down.

The driver of the car, a Panamanian diplomat, ran a red light and smashed into her vehicle. Because of his immunity, he was never charged and was not liable for her hospital bills totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The liability insurance law, however, has been difficult to enforce because diplomats are immune from prosecution, and there was no way until last summer to keep track of their cars.

Now, the State Department can check to make sure insurance is not dropped. If diplomats fail to adhere to insurance requirements or ignore other traffic laws, the department can yank their plates.

The program ″gives us some power to enforce the question of insurance,″ said James Nolan, director of the Office of Foreign Missions.

He said most missions have maintained adequate liability insurance, but the compliance rate ″has not ...been clearly 100 percent.″

Diplomatic cars now must carry the amount of liability insurance required by the states in which the owners live. But the department is likely to set its own minimum coverage requirements soon, probably about $300,000 combined single limit insurance, Chiocco said.

So far, diplomats have been cooperating.

Pam Chappell, a spokeswoman at the Canadian Embassy, agreed.

″Administratively, it’s making it a lot easier for us,″ she said. ″Before people had to deal with different jurisdications.″

″As far as I know, there haven’t been any problems,″ said Nigel Ellacott, spokesman for the British Embassy. ″They (State) has asked us to do something, and we’re doing it.″

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