You know the drill - an officer comes to your window and asks for license and proof of insurance. But imagine that instead of rifling through a stack of expired insurance cards and wadded up receipts, all you had to do was show the officer an image on your smartphone.
That is the reality now in most of the nation, even if many people still don't know this is an option for them.
"In this digital age, you can do just about anything on your smartphone, including providing proof of insurance," said Dolleen Cross - Esurance.com spokeswoman.
A widespread option
According to the New York Times, as early as three years ago, only seven states allowed digital insurance cards.
But now, providing digital proof of coverage is the reality in most of the nation.
"Forty-four states now accept digital insurance ID. Make sure your state is on the list," Cross said.
One of those states is Pennsylvania, which began allowing virtual cards in 2013.
"This legislation was supported by the industry folks because they wanted to save on paper and resources and offer a niche to the customers," said Mark Lersch, property and casualty director for the Pennsylvania Insurance Department.
Lersch said that in that time, his office has received word of no issues or problems, and they were glad to offer the option.
"Any time we can be more streamlined in the industry, we are going to be all for that. We are all for innovation," Lersch said.
Convenience is the main selling point of those digital cards. That is because if you have your phone, you have your updated insurance card and there is no need to remember to swap out the paper card when it comes in the mail. It also means fewer cards to keep in your already overstuffed wallet or glove box.
"Going digital is definitely more convenient and ensures that your ID card is always current and glove box clutter free," Cross said.
If you are in one of the states that accepts virtual cards, then at the traffic stop, you will need to pull up the app displaying your card and then hand that over to the officer along with your driver's license and registration.
The officer will then take your phone back to the squad car to verify the information. But for the privacy-minded drivers, take heart - most states require that the officer only look at the relevant information. For example, Pennsylvania's law says "the police officer shall only view content that is reasonably necessary to demonstrate proof of financial responsibility."
The law does, however protect the officer from liability in cases of "inadvertent viewing of materials on the device other than the proof of financial responsibility.”
It also protects officers in the case of, “inadvertent deletion of information from the device, inadvertent interception of a communication while in possession of the device and breakage which occurs to the device."
So, that means that if the officer drops your phone, you are on the hook for the damage.
Another thing to be wary of is the potential for technical difficulties during the traffic stop
"It's easy to access your digital ID at any time - when you have cell service - through the mobile application," Cross said.
But that means that if you are in a wireless dead zone, or if your battery is dead, you may be left without proof of insurance during a traffic stop if you are relying solely on the electronic proof.
Another time to be wary of going purely digital would be If you are driving through a state that requires paper, such as New Mexico, New York or North Carolina. While you technically may be covered because it is legal in your state, that might be an awkward discussion to have with an officer who just pulled you over, and bringing a paper backup could avoid a very tough conversation with a terse officer.
A case for paper
And if you just aren’t comfortable with the idea of relying on a purely digital proof of insurance, you are also in luck. That is because you still have a choice.
"Our law requires that it is a voluntary thing," Lersch said. "Both the insurer and the customer have to agree. The insurance company can’t require it."
Cross agreed that for the digitally squeamish, or the overly cautious, choice is the answer.
"You don't have to choose between print and digital - you can have both," Cross said