Despite laws in nearly every state requiring auto insurance, one in seven drivers in the USA goes uncovered.
That's according to an industry group that estimates 13.8% of motorists are uninsured, a number that has climbed during the economic downturn as many financially-pressed Americans allowed their insurance to lapse.
"Over the last 20 years, uninsured motorists and the unemployment rate have tracked fairly closely," says David Corum, vice president of the Insurance Research Council, a non-profit supported by insurers.
Insured drivers pay a hefty price for fellow motorists who have no policies — $10.8 billion in 2007, according to the most recent data from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
"Most of the people that do have insurance have coverage that includes uninsured motorist coverage … to protect them (if) they're injured in an accident caused by another motorist who does not have insurance," Corum says.
Automobile insurance is compulsory in every state except New Hampshire, says Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute— but that doesn't deter scofflaws.
"Laws in most states have proven ineffective in reducing the numbers of drivers who are uninsured," Worters says. "Some drivers can't afford insurance, and some drivers with surcharges for accidents or serious traffic violations don't want to pay the high premiums that result from a poor driving record. It is costly to track down violators of compulsory insurance laws, and unless the odds of getting caught are high and the penalties severe, drivers will continue to flout the law."
The rate of uninsured motorists varies widely — from 4% in Massachusetts to 28% in Mississippi, according to the IRC.
In Massachusetts, drivers must show proof of insurance before they can register a vehicle. Insurance commissioner Joseph Murphy attributes his state's low rate of uninsured motorists largely to that requirement. About half the states have a similar requirement, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Mississippi, however, has no way for police to determine whether a driver has coverage, says insurance commissioner Mike Chaney. He says he worries about privacy and entrapment if data are misused, and his state doesn't require proof of insurance. "The legislature has never had the fortitude or the backbone to do it," he says.