Monday, February 16, 2009

DES MOINES, Iowa | Chances are increasing that the next fender bender you’re involved in could be with someone without car insurance. As the recession leaves millions of workers unemployed and pressures family budgets, one place many are cutting is their insurance coverage.

The Insurance Research Council (IRC) estimates that by next year nearly one in six motorists may be driving without insurance. That’s 3 million more uninsured drivers than just five years ago.

“We can’t explain why people drive uninsured. We just know that a certain percentage of people do, and it does change with economic conditions like unemployment,” said IRC Vice President David Corum.

For every 1 percent increase in unemployment nationwide, the percentage of uninsured motorists increases three-quarters of a percentage point, Mr. Corum said. That could result in a total of 16.1 percent by next year, an all-time high. The rate was 13.8 percent in 2007.

The group examined data collected from nine insurance companies, representing about 50 percent of the U.S. private passenger auto insurance market.

Travelers Cos. Inc. reports that it has seen a slight increase recently in uninsured claims and warns against dropping insurance as a way to save money.

“Not having auto coverage could mean financial ruin if you are in an accident where property is damaged or individuals are injured,” said William Pearse, the St. Paul, Minn., company’s vice president of product strategy and design.

Mr. Pearse notes that it’s equally important to carry liability insurance that covers people in the other car and to have uninsured motorist coverage on your policy, which protects you if the other car isn’t insured.

The average cost for liability insurance in the United States is about $40 to $50 a month. Although costs can vary, uninsured motorist coverage typically adds from 7 percent to 10 percent to an insurance premium.

Drivers without at least liability insurance are breaking the law in all but two states.

Wisconsin and New Hampshire only require motorists to provide proof that they can pay minimal levels of damage, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Proof may include a surety bond or a certificate of self-insurance, which is often purchased through the state’s motor vehicle agency or a certificate of deposit.

Bloomington, Ill.-based State Farm Insurance Cos. is already seeing an increase in the number of accidents involving uninsured drivers.

The average payment on claims in accidents involving an uninsured driver is about $11,000, according to the most recent IRC information.

The insurance industry also is watching the level of underinsured drivers — those carrying too little liability insurance — and has concerns that this number also will spike as people seek to cut insurance costs.

More uninsured drivers also means more people will be forced to take legal action to recover damages. Many will never be fully compensated for car damage and injuries in serious accidents, said Jim Quilty, an attorney with the Crawford Quilty Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa.

“You may have a bankrupt or insolvent defendant from whom you can’t collect,” he said.

Before you consider driving without insurance, you should know that the penalties may include fines, which in many states cost more than the annual premium for the minimum insurance. Some states also revoke or suspend the car registration or license of uninsured drivers and in some cases take license plates or impound vehicles. A few states may jail violators.

In five states — Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, New Mexico and Oklahoma — nearly a fourth of the drivers had no insurance in 2007, the most recent state statistics available, the IRC said.

States with the lowest uninsured driver estimates were Maine, New York, North Dakota and Vermont, which all had less than 6 percent of drivers with no insurance. Massachusetts was the lowest, with just 1 percent.

Mark Martin, who runs an auto body shop in Ankeny, Iowa, on the northwest edge of Des Moines, said some of his customers have fallen victim to uninsured drivers.

“We do see that. I can’t say that we’ve seen a higher percentage of that yet, but it’s a problem,” he said.

He experienced firsthand the frustration when an uninsured driver rear-ended his Lincoln Mark VIII a few years ago.

Damage came to about $3,500, and after his $1,000 deductible was taken out, about $2,500 remained to be collected. Mr. Martin said he was very frustrated when his insurance company decided not to go after the driver for the money. Mr. Martin ended up not filing the claim and later fixed the car himself.

“I didn’t want to have a nervous breakdown over it, so I just decided not to do anything and later on I repainted the whole car, so I fixed it at that point,” he said.

While you may have a clean driving record, more than 6 million crashes were reported to police nationwide in 2007, and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates 10 million or more crashes are never reported to police each year.

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