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Road hazards

Would stiffer penalties result in more insured motorists?

C.G. Niebank June 6th, 2012

The next time you drive to work, the supermarket, or the nearest mall, look at the cars, trucks and minivans around you, and consider this: There’s a good chance that in an accident with one of those vehicles, you’ll get stuck paying the entire bill for damages to your own car or truck.

Credit: Shannon Cornman

That’s because almost one-quarter of all Oklahoma drivers are uninsured, according to statistics compiled in 2009 by the Insurance Research Council. Among the 50 states, Oklahoma is tied with Tennessee and Florida for third place, with 24 percent of all drivers uninsured. Only New Mexico (26 percent) and Mississippi (28 percent) have higher numbers of uninsured drivers.

Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak said the financial burden created by those uninsured motorists is the most frequent source of complaints he hears.

“Folks are upset. Paying higher premiums is a result of fewer folks having insurance,” he said. “The good taxpaying citizens — the folks who carry insurance — are tired of getting in accidents with folks who have no insurance.”

Doak noted that one difficulty in enforcing the law that requires all drivers to have insurance is that Oklahoma’s penalties for driving without insurance may not be strict enough.

“There is a school of thought out there that folks will drive [without insurance] and then they’ll pay the penalty,” he said. “The fine needs to be more than the cost of the insurance, or they’ll see how long they can get away with it.”

Doak said the first-time fine for driving without insurance in Maine or Massachusetts is $3,000. In both of those states, the Insurance Research Council data shows that only 4 percent of drivers are uninsured, the lowest percentages in the country.

Legislation that stalled this year sought to reduce the number of uninsured drivers by providing statewide access to computerized insurance records and allowing law enforcement officers to check for current insurance at any time, rather than only during traffic stops.

Under the failed measure, officers would have been able to ticket and tow vehicles for lack of insurance.

“One of our main objectives is to make sure the system is made available to law enforcement statewide,” Doak said. “Right now, there are only very few law enforcement operations around the state that have access to that data.”

Another suggestion to check for insurance verification stickers has been the installation of license-plate-reading cameras along Oklahoma roads and highways. It’s an idea that Doak opposes.

“I think that’s an intrusion into our liberties and being able to be on the roads,” he said.

John Doak

And like it or not, Doak said, tough economic decisions facing less affluent Oklahomans could be the reason behind a portion of the high number of uninsured drivers.

“There are some families in Oklahoma for whom it’s difficult to get a job and pay for food for their family,” he said. “Then that hard decision comes: Do you need to drive to work [and] put food on your table, or do you buy car insurance?”

States with highest annual average car insurance premiums

Louisiana $2,536

Oklahoma $2,047

Michigan $2,013

West Virginia $2,002

Washington, D.C. $1,886

Montana $1,856

Rhode Island $1,830

Wyoming $1,732

California $1,709 Georgia $1,694


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