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Residents still riding uninsured despite possible penalties

Compulsory automobile liability insurance has been in effect for a few years now in Mississippi. But many people have found ways to get around the law, and there are some complaints that the law in not being adequately enforced.

“One of the complaints that this office is still receiving is that someone is hit by an uninsured motorist and the uninsured motorist is not given a ticket for failing to have insurance,” said Lee Harrell, deputy commissioner, Mississippi Insurance Department (MID).

Harrell said they have also received complaints about the driver who is at fault giving false insurance data at the scene of the accident.

“We normally refer these calls to the Mississippi Highway Patrol (MHP) or a local law enforcement agency,” Harrell said.

Uninsured motorists off the road

Auto liability insurance became mandatory in 2001. It was promoted because of concerns about the large number of uninsured motorists on the road. If a driver who is not at fault has a wreck caused by an uninsured driver, often the driver who is not at fault has to pick up the tab for the deductibles. And the claim is on that driver’s insurance, instead of the insurance of the person causing the accident.
Harrell said a lot of the calls that the MID was receiving prior to the implementation of this new law were dealing were complaints about being hit by someone with no auto insurance.

“In my dealings with the members of the Legislature on these bills, most of the discussions were dealing with how to get uninsured motorists off the road,” Harrell said.

Lowering auto insurance cost was not a big factor in passage of the Legislature. But Harrell says ultimately, if everyone had auto insurance, you would probably see some lowering of the cost.

While auto insurance rates haven’t declined, Harrell said they have stabilized. Some companies are filing for modest rate increases.

“We hope that the recent tort reforms will result in even more decreases or rate stabilization,” Harrell said. “In addition, we believe that ultimately these new tort reforms will result in more insurance companies coming back to Mississippi, which means more competition, which normally is good for the consumer.”

Some motorists are finding out it isn’t a good idea to drop uninsured motorist coverage to handle claims because of the possibility of being in an accident with someone who doesn’t have insurance.

“There are still problems with uninsured motorists,” said Diane Clark, an agent with Worldwide Insurance in Gulfport. “Last week two of our customers were hit by motorists with no insurance. A lot of people thought when the mandatory liability insurance law went in force, they could drop uninsured motorist coverage. These customers didn’t have uninsured motorist coverage. So they will have to sue the people who hit them.”

Clark’s opinion is that the law has been partially successful. It appears more people are purchasing liability insurance than before it was mandatory. But she also sees a lot of cheating — and that cheating creates major paperwork problems for the insurance companies.

“Where the law doesn’t have any bite is when they check up on people,” Clark said. “And they know how to beat the system, unfortunately. They will pay a down payment for one month, and then never make another payment. The policy ends up canceling. But they have a wallet card that shows it is good for six months. That is why some companies stopped writing yearly policies. They didn’t want people getting those yearly cards if they weren’t going to pay for coverage for a year.”

Clark said the law often isn’t being adequately enforced. For example, her husband was stopped at a roadblock, and while they checked the driver’s license, inspection sticker and seat belts, they didn’t ask for proof of insurance. Clark has heard similar stories from others.

“It is a state law, but it just isn’t being enforced,” Clark said. “It is a headache for insurance companies when people pay just one month and then cancel. There needs to be some way the system can check up on people. Maybe they should get a notice their driver’s license will be suspended until they get their insurance. There are more people who are getting liability insurance, but there are still a lot of people who don’t have it.”

Focusing on enforcement

Ray Dixon, president of Independent Insurance Agents of Mississippi and first vice president of Bottrell Insurance Agency in Jackson, said while there are more drivers insured than before the law passed, there are always going to be drivers who don’t purchase automobile insurance.
He said the fact that many drivers continue to be uninsured shouldn’t be seen as an indictment of law enforcement agencies.

“It is difficult to police the law,” Dixon said. “We have insured customers call us to say they were pulled over for speeding and asked for their insurance card, but they didn’t have it. They lost their card and need a replacement. Other times insured customers have called to say none of the officers at the scene of an accident asked for insurance cards.

“There are some inconsistencies about whether it is being checked. It needs to be improved so if someone is in an accident or stopped for speeding, then the police officer asks for proof of insurance. My thought is we could improve enforcement.”

When liability insurance became mandatory, there was some concern it could increase rates for everyone because the worst drivers would get insured. But Dixon said the worst drivers are charged the highest rates, and that has been a disincentive for bad drivers to get insurance.

Rates haven’t increased because of the compulsory insurance, Dixon said. But some drivers may have seen increased rates because there is better reporting today of tickets for speeding and other violations.

“Some people have seen increases in premiums because the companies are better aware of their driving records through getting good motor vehicle reports,” Dixon said. “There is better reporting today, and the company rates are based on how you use your car. One speeding ticket isn’t necessarily going to blow rates out of proportion, but it is based on a pattern.”

Extra traffic on state roads also makes accidents more likely. Dixon said as highways become more crowded, it gets more difficult to avoid accidents.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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