Compulsory Auto/Uninsured Motorists
Virtually all states require drivers to have auto liability insurance before they can legally drive a motor vehicle. (Liability insurance pays the other driver’s medical, vehicle repair and other costs when the policyholder is at fault in an accident.) State laws set the minimum amounts of insurance or other financial security that drivers must pay for the harm caused by their negligence if an accident occurs. The public generally supports compulsory auto insurance and wants these laws enforced.
Liability insurance is compulsory in 49 states and the District of Columbia. New Hampshire, the only state that does not have a compulsory insurance liability law, requires that drivers be able to demonstrate that they are able to provide sufficient funds in the event of an “at-fault” accident. Motorcycle insurance is compulsory in every state with the exception of four: Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire, and Washington.
Laws in most states have proven ineffective in reducing the number of drivers who are uninsured. There are many reasons for this. Some drivers cannot afford insurance and some drivers with surcharges for accidents or serious traffic violations do not want to pay the high premiums that result from a poor driving record. With the estimated percentage of uninsured drivers in the United States close to 14 percent, it is costly to track down violators of compulsory insurance laws.
- Uninsured Motorists: The percentage of uninsured motorists declined nationally from 13.8 percent in 2009 to 12.6 percent in 2012, according to Insurance Research Council (IRC) estimates reported in its 2014 study. The IRC measures the number of uninsured motorists based on insurance claims, using a ratio of insurance claims made by people who were injured by uninsured drivers relative to the claims made by people who were injured by insured drivers.
- The IRC said that California had the highest number of uninsured drivers (4.1 million), followed by Florida and Texas (3.2 million and 1.6 million, respectively.)
- Oklahoma had the highest percentage of uninsured motorists, at 26 percent, and Massachusetts had the lowest, at 4 percent.
- Electronic Insurance Verification: Insurer verification laws mandate that all insurance companies in a state submit the entire list of their policyholders to an outside vendor or a state agency, which matches them to motor vehicle registrations. (See Background, Computer Databases and chart Automobile Financial Responsibility Limits and Enforcement by State.)
- The Texas online insurance verification system, TexasSure, posted data showing that as of August 25, 2014, 14.09 percent of all vehicles in the state were uninsured, about the same as 14.70 percent a year earlier. (See Computer Databases below.)
- Electronic Delivery: According to PCI reports, as of February 2015, 26 states allowed electronic delivery of insurance documents and notices. These laws are known as E-Commerce laws.
- Website Access: Access to insurance policies online could aid people who are evacuated or suffer a loss following a natural catastrophe, as well as allow policyholders to review their policies at any time using smartphones or tablets. Sixty-six percent of auto, homeowners and renters policyholders responding to a May 2014 poll conducted by the Insurance Information Institute said they would like to view all policies available to them on a single website.
- As of February 2015, 18 states had approved laws that will allow policyholders to access their insurance policies through a website, according to PCI.
- Minimum Financial Responsibility Limits: On January 1, 2015 Illinois raised the minimum financial responsibility limits for auto insurance policies from 20/40/15 to 25/50/20. The first number refers to bodily injury (BI) liability limits for one person injured in an accident (limited to $25,000), the second number refers to BI liability limits for all persons injured in an accident and the third number to property damage (PD) liability.
- Undocumented Immigrants Drivers Licenses: On January 1, 2015 a California law went into effect that will allow undocumented immigrants who are state residents to obtain a drivers license after they have passed driving exams. (See Background, Undocumented Immigrants Drivers Licenses.)
The chart above provides a state-by-state overview of minimum auto liability limits and the insurance required by state law. Coverages that may be rejected by the policyholder, either in writing or verbally (i.e., are not mandatory) have been excluded.
States may also require motorists to have physical proof of valid insurance, which is usually a card issued by the insurer. They may also require motorists to provide evidence of insurance in certain situations. For example, all but about a dozen states require motorists to have valid evidence of insurance in their vehicles at all times and to produce it when stopped by law enforcers. About the same number of states require motorists to produce evidence of insurance when they are involved in a crash or shortly afterward. About half of the states require evidence of insurance when a vehicle is registered.
Increasingly, laws are being passed that expand the role of the insurer in verifying compliance with compulsory liability laws and aiding in their enforcement. Insurance companies often work in conjunction with state motor vehicle departments to verify insurance coverage. Most states have laws that specify that insurers must notify the motor vehicle department when a policy is cancelled or not renewed. In some states, insurers are asked to verify the existence of insurance at the time that a specific accident occurred. In other states, insurers are given lists of randomly selected auto registrations, which they are asked to match up with insurance policies that the motorists claim were in effect. Newer laws, known as computer data laws, require an insurer to submit its entire list of automobile liability policies, updated at specified intervals, to a state agency such as the motor vehicle department. The state agency can use the lists to verify registration applicants' declarations that insurance is in effect. (See also Background: Computer Databases.)
Penalties for driving without compulsory insurance include fines, which can be as high as $5,000 for a subsequent offense, to license or registration suspension or revocation. Some states can impose jail time, confiscate license plates and impound vehicles.
In 1927 Massachusetts became the first state to require the purchase of auto liability insurance. Since then 48 states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. Such laws usually have the support of the public despite the fact that compliance with such laws is generally poor and enforcement activities are costly. Compulsory auto insurance laws do nothing to protect drivers involved in accidents with drivers of stolen vehicles or drivers from one of the two states where insurance is not compulsory, drivers of unregistered vehicles, the insurance dodger who cancels a policy immediately after receiving a proof-of-insurance certificate and the hit-and-run driver.
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) has suggested that strict enforcement of compulsory auto insurance laws, with mandatory and "significant" fines for first time offenders, may be the key to lowering the uninsured motorist population. In 1989 it identified North Carolina as having one of the highest rates of compliance at the time (96.6 percent) and one of the strictest and swiftest enforcement programs. The NAIC said the program’s effectiveness relied largely upon the cooperation of the state's insurance and motor vehicle departments, insurers, and state and local law enforcement agencies—following up on reports of insurance policy cancellations, for example, to make sure that new policies were purchased or that the license plates were turned in. Such cooperation may not be possible in states with larger metropolitan areas, where other law enforcement priorities may limit the resources devoted to enforcing compulsory auto liability insurance laws. A 2002 study from Florida State University’s College of Business also noted the positive effect of compulsory laws combined with high noncompliance fines saying that states that had this combination from 1995 to 1997 were able to decrease their uninsured motorist rates. While high fines were found to be an effective deterrent, jail time for noncompliance was not, probably, as the authors said, because motorists don’t believe that the penalty will be enforced.
Compulsory auto liability insurance is not necessarily the most effective solution. A 1994 study by the National Association of Independent Insurers (now known as PCI) found that New Hampshire, a state that does not have compulsory insurance laws, had a smaller percentage of uninsured drivers than the nearby states of Rhode Island, Vermont and Connecticut. Only 10 other states had fewer uninsured drivers. New Hampshire also had the lowest percentage of uninsured drivers—9.5 percent—of all the states without compulsory laws.
Affordability influences decisions about whether to purchase auto insurance. Risk Information, Inc. found that the 1995 Insurance Research Council (IRC) uninsured motorist rates by state, when compared with average personal auto insurance expenditures from the NAIC, points to cost, along with enforcement and culture, as factors in decisions not to buy compulsory coverage. For instance, some states such as New Jersey, New York and Louisiana have high insurance costs, especially when measured against median family income, yet their uninsured motorist rates were 12 percent or less at the time of the study. On the other hand, Alabama had an uninsured rate of 28 percent even though coverage cost much less there.
Computer Databases: Insurer verification laws mandating that all insurance companies in a state submit the entire list of their policyholders to an outside vendor or a state agency, which match them to motor vehicle registrations, are a tool to help solve the uninsured motorist problem. These systems are designed to promote compliance with the law by increasing the odds of being caught driving uninsured. At first a number of states reported having problems administering this system, which in some states had a high error rate, including “mismatch” problems. Mismatch can occur when insurers and the motor vehicle or regulation department have conflicting or erroneous records that mistakenly flag policyholders as flouting the law.
Web Service System: The Insurance Industry Committee on Motor Vehicle Administration (IICMVA) has found that state reporting systems do not effectively meet their main objective, which is to identify and track uninsured motorists. The programs are costly, difficult to implement and hard to maintain.The IICMVA has developed an industry-supported Web service system that would create a single online verification system. A state’s Department of Motor Vehicles or law enforcement division would use a Web portal to insurer data to access real-time information about whether a motorist had insurance. The IICMVA model also established guidelines for uniformity, for example, requiring the transmission of data through Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) using a standardized format. Using this system remedies the need to exchange massive amounts of data because insurers maintain their own data.
Other Solutions to the Uninsured Motorist Problem: Over the years various proposals for dealing with the uninsured motorist problem have been put forward. Unsatisfied judgment funds were set up in a few states to provide a source of funds for accident victims when the at-fault party has no means of paying a judgment, but their effectiveness proved to be limited. A more effective remedy is uninsured (and underinsured) motorist coverage that provides compensation to policyholders when an at-fault motorist has no liability insurance (or insufficient amounts) or when the at-fault motorist is a hit-and-run driver. Like unsatisfied judgment funds, this program does nothing to reduce the number of uninsured motorists but it does provide a way for individual drivers to deal with the financial consequences of accidents with hit-and-run or uninsured drivers. In about 20 jurisdictions, uninsured motorist coverage is mandatory. In other states, insurers are required to offer the coverage but a driver does not have to purchase it. Only a handful of states require drivers to purchase underinsured motorist coverage. The provisions of uninsured motorists laws vary by state.
The price of uninsured motorist coverage varies considerably from state to state, depending in part on the percentage of drivers who are uninsured. The price is also influenced by whether the amount available to pay claims can be increased by "stacking," a practice that works to the benefit of people who own more than one insured vehicle. In states where stacking is not specifically prohibited, liability limits under the uninsured motorist coverage may be multiplied by the number of cars insured under a single policy or may be added together where multiple vehicles are insured under different policies. Thus, in a three-car family, where uninsured motorist liability limits are $20,000, in a state that does not prohibit stacking, the amount available to pay a claim in an accident with an uninsured driver would be $60,000. Because stacking drives up the cost of auto insurance, about half of the states prohibit stacking, according to the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. However some states, such as Missouri and Pennsylvania have upheld stacking provisions.
No-fault insurance laws also provide some relief from the problem of uninsured motorists. Under no-fault auto insurance plans, accident victims can collect benefits from their own insurance companies, regardless of whether the other party has insurance coverage (see paper on no-fault auto insurance for more information).
“No Pay, No Play”: In response to public concerns that people who obey compulsory laws subsidize scofflaws, legislators in more than 20 states have proposed “no pay, no play” laws, which ban uninsured drivers from suing for noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering. Eleven states have enacted such laws. Missouri’s law, which went into effect on October 11, 2013, prohibits uninsured drivers from collecting pain and suffering (noneconomic damages) from a motor vehicle accident, unless the defendant in the lawsuit operated a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs or was convicted of involuntary manslaughter or second-degree assault. In Michigan uninsured drivers who are 50 percent or more at fault cannot collect noneconomic damages in the event of an auto accident. California's plan (Proposition 213) goes further by curtailing lawsuits for drunk drivers as well as for those who are uninsured. Louisiana’s law compels uninsured motorists to pay for the first $10,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses and the first $10,000 in property damage before they can sue the other party. New Jersey's law, similar to California’s Proposition 213, specifies that uninsured and drunk drivers, as well as motorists who intentionally commit other crimes, may not file lawsuits for economic or noneconomic damages. These laws were upheld in New Jersey and Louisiana. A related issue was addressed in Iowa, where the governor signed a bill prohibiting motorists from collecting noneconomic damages for injuries resulting from an accident if the motorist was using the vehicle while committing a felony.
In December 2012 the Insurance Research Council (IRC) released the findings of a study, The Potential Effects of No Pay, No Play Laws, which examined the 10 states that had no pay, no play laws at the time. It concluded that adopting such a law may result in a reduction of up to 1.6 percent in a state’s percentage of uninsured drivers after controlling for changes in unemployment and insurance affordability, which have significant impacts.
Low-cost Policies: Low-cost auto policies are designed for drivers who cannot afford regularly priced auto policies or who have little or no assets to protect. New Jersey's Basic Policy offers $15,000 in personal injury protection, up to $250,000 in medical benefits for catastrophic injuries and $5,000 property damage liability. Policyholders have the option to buy $10,000 bodily injury liability coverage but they cannot buy uninsured, underinsured or collision and comprehensive coverage. The newer Dollar-A-Day policy provides emergency medical care coverage immediately after an accident and $10,000 death benefits but no coverage for liability.
California's program for low-income drivers is administered by the California Assigned Risk Program. Every auto insurer doing business in the state must take their “fair share” of applicants. The program was originally set up in 1999 for drivers in Los Angeles and San Francisco counties. By the end of 2007, low-cost auto policies had become available to all drivers in the state. In 2012, premiums were lowered statewide resulting from a decrease in crashes and damage in 2011 caused by policyholders.
Only drivers over age 19 with good driving records and low incomes (up to 250 percent of the poverty level) are eligible. Applicants must have motor vehicles valued at $25,000 or less. Rates are set in each county so that premiums are sufficient to cover losses and expenses in each county. The policy provides up to $10,000 in liability coverage for one person involved in an accident and up to $20,000 for more than one person. It also includes payment options, allowing a 15 percent deposit and six monthly installments, optional $10,000/$20,000 uninsured motorist bodily injury coverage and $1,000 medical payments coverage. As of January 2015, drivers who had not previously been continually licensed for the past three years are now eligible to use the program. The program had about 11,000 policies in effect as of March 2014.
Undocumented Immigrant Drivers Licenses: Proponents in favor of granting undocumented immigrants drivers licenses say that the requirement would promote safety and responsibility by ensuring drivers have passed a driving exam and have insurance, as is generally required for licenses, and would ensure that more complete data is available to officials checking drivers license data bases for information on an individual driver, such as place of residence or driving record. Opponents say the licenses create a security risk by potentially providing illegal immigrants with ease of access to secure buildings and other privileges.
As of January 2015 at least eleven states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had laws granting driving privileges to undocumented drivers. Washington and New Mexico allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses, while Utah allows undocumented immigrants to obtain learners permits. Nevada issues Driver Authorization Cards instead of licenses. Illinois’ law allows undocumented immigrants who have resided in the state for over a year to obtain a temporary drivers license. Provisions in the law would make the license invalid if the driver cannot show proof of insurance if stopped by a law enforcement officer. Maryland’s law allows for a “second tier” drivers license for applicants who cannot prove lawful status if the applicant has filed a Maryland tax return or is claimed as a dependent by a person who has filed a tax return in the state. These licenses will expire on July 1, 2015. In Vermont the Department of Motor Vehicles issues operator and junior operator privilege cards and learners privilege cards to applicants who cannot establish lawful presence or otherwise fail to satisfy identity requirements, if they can furnish reliable proof of address, among other requirements. Oregon’s law had been contested and voted as a referendum in 2014. Laws granting driving privileges to undocumented immigrants went into effect in August 2014 in Colorado and Puerto Rico. In California, where a law went into effect on January 1, 2015, applicants must be able to prove their identity, be state residents and pass driving exams. The licenses will be marked with a special notice stating that it is not an official identification document and cannot be used for any other purpose. Connecticut’s law also went into effect on January 1, 2015.
Tennessee has reportedly repealed its program, citing fraud problems, and the governor of New Mexico has said she will work to do the same (see research below.)
The North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles said that on March 25, 2014 it would begin to issue specially marked drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. The licenses are a response to the federal Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals Act, which provides a pathway to citizenship for these individuals. An attorney with the National Immigration Law Center said that about 40 states and the District of Columbia plan to issue similar licenses.
Researchers from New Mexico State University and Duquesne University found that New Mexico’s law allowing undocumented immigrants to drive has failed to cause a significant change in the percentage of uninsured motorists in the state. When New Mexico began issuing drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants in 2003, 26.3 percent of drivers were uninsured. In 2008 the ratio increased to 29.5 percent before dropping back to 25.7 percent in 2009. The report, Examining the Impact of Issuing Driver’s Licenses to Undocumented Immigrants and Other Socioeconomic Factors on the Percentage of Uninsured Motorists, is based on data from the Insurance Research Council. It appeared in the Journal of Insurance Regulation in 2011.
ESTIMATED PERCENTAGE OF UNINSURED MOTORISTS BY STATE, 2012 (1)
ESTIMATED PERCENTAGE OF UNINSURED MOTORISTS, 1992-2012 (1)
TOP TEN HIGHEST AND LOWEST STATES BASED ON ESTIMATED PERCENTAGE OF UNINSURED MOTORISTS, 2012 (1)
KEY SOURCES OF ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
Allstate. Auto Insurance State Coverage Map. Includes information on required limits and common limits, by state.
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