Copyright: Next City

Now that both houses of Congress are probably more divided than they’ve ever been since the 19th century, I opted to write about  automobile insurance. Issues regarding transportation and safety are usually ones that can generate bipartisan agreement- everyone benefits from safer roads.

Syria is in absolute chaos, terrorist bombings are still occurring frequently throughout many parts of the Middle East and parts of north Africa, and we’ve just had the most controversial President elected in recent memory.  So why am I writing about automobile insurance? Good question.  How’d I know that you would likely be wondering that as you read through this article?

The issue that I’m discussing in this article- proposing that the decision as to whether or not automobile insurance become mandatory should be removed from the state governments, and that the Federal government should make it mandatory is not at a trivial issue at all.

Unless you work for an insurance company, this is an issue that we obviously don’t usually think about very often, or ever- until you end up getting into an automobile accident in either of the 2 states which do not presently require mandatory automobile insurance.  Then once, you’re involved in an accident, people wonder why this was not addressed half a century ago while our Federal government was constructing our interstate highway system- meaning that the sooner this issue is addressed, the sooner that our roads will become safer for all travelers.

We do not yet know who our next Secretary Of Transportation will be yet.  As I was writing this article, four people still seem to be realistic possibilities: New Jersey governor Christ Christie, one of the Representatives from Florida, John Mica, Mark Rosenker, who is the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board, and John Simpson, who has formerly headed both the New Jersey Department Of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration.

Whomever our next Secretary of Transportation will be, I am hoping that he or she or administrators within their staff decide that the Federal government should require that automobile insurance should be mandatory throughout the entire country.  At present, the decision as to whether or not drivers should be required to have auto insurance is still in the hands of each of our 50 state governments.

At present, while 48 states plus Washington, D.C. do require mandatory auto insurance, in New Hampshire and Virginia, auto insurance is still optional.  In those two states, insurance is optional both for cars and trucks that are purchased for personal use as well as for business use.  While many drivers in those two states do opt to purchase auto insurance policies, it is in fact not mandatory.  While the other 48 state governments as well as Washington, D.C. do require mandatory auto insurance policies for all drivers, as long as the decision lays with the state governments and not with the Federal government, then the state assemblies in some of the states which currently do require that all vehicles be insured can always opt to make auto insurance optional again.  The state legislature in Wisconsin did not require that all drivers and all vehicles maintain active auto insurance policies until 2010.

The reasons that the state governments in Virginia and New Hampshire do not require auto insurance is that their state legislatures have stated that for people who are already struggling to afford to pay all of their other living expenses, requiring auto insurance would simply force them either into bankruptcy or close to bankruptcy.  This IS probably true, but there are quite a few other ways that these issues should be addressed.  The issues relating to balancing living expenses for all families should be addressed through a combination of raising minimum wages, lowering state and Federal income taxes and numerous programs which are intended to create jobs.  Making auto insurance optional actually is probably making roads more dangerous.

In most states, collision insurance is mandatory, and comprehensive insurance is optional.  Collision insurance addresses accidents, and comprehensive insurance addresses everything else, including thefts and damage that is caused by natural disasters.  I’m proposing that the Federal government set a minimum standard for collision insurance policies, and then if some of the state legislatures want to, they can add further requirements beyond the national standard.

As of November 2016, in New Hampshire, when a driver registers a vehicle, they are required to prove to the state DMV offices that they meet the state’s financial requirements– meaning they are required to prove that they would be able to pay for damages if they are to get into an auto accident.  In Virginia, drivers have the option to pay an additional uninsured motorist fee when they register their vehicles, instead of purchasing auto insurance policies.  It is my opinion that these alternatives in these two states do not function as well as mandatory auto insurance does primarily for two reasons.  Firstly, in the absence of mandatory insurance, people who are involved in accidents are often forced to go to the claims courts to settle their claims, and this places additional stress on the courts which are already notably backlogged.  Secondly, I believe that having auto insurance forces people to be more attentive and careful when we drive.

This Is An Issue That Effects All Americans, As Well As Everyone Who Travels To The U.S. 

This does not only effect people who live or work in New Hampshire or Virginia; highway safety effects all Americans.  Even if we don’t live or work in either of those 2 states, we may travel to them or through them while we’re traveling for business or for vacations.  We may have friends of family members who live, work or travel through those 2 states.  Aside from the obvious- that legislation which is intended to lead to safer drivers saves lives and prevents injuries, there is another reason that we should want auto insurance to be mandatory for all drivers and all vehicles in every state; safer driving conditions also should lead to fewer accidents which has numerous economic advantages too.  Even if we never travel through those states, we still purchase good which are manufactured in those two states, and the trucks that deliver those goods from farms and factories to our local stores travel on the same highways as many thousands of drivers who are still legally uninsured.

As I was researching this article, I’d expected to find studies which showed that as more states began to require that all drivers have auto insurance, the rates of accidents would be decreasing.  Instead, I was surprised to discover that the most comprehensive long term study on this subject that I found actually showed precisely the opposite; throughout the course of the 1970’s through the 1990’s as more state legislatures required that all drivers be insured, rates of accidents actually increased.  However, it is important to remember here that the statistics are not telling the entire story.  In the period from the 1970’s through the 1990’s, vehicle safety standards became a lot more stringent too, and accidents increased.  From the 1970’s through the 1990’s, there were simply more vehicles and more drivers on our roads than ever before, so with millions of more drivers and more vehicles, we ended up with more accidents.

It is basic common sense; when you get into an accident or when you receive a traffic violation, your insurance rates increase.  Drivers want to keep the rates that they pay as low as possible, so vehicle insurance forces people to be more careful when we drive.

A Brief History Of Comparable Highway And Road Safety Issues

There are comparable precedents from our past.  In the early decades of automobiles, safety standards for roads as well as for vehicles were non-existent, and then when the Federal government recognized that those standards were needed, the Federal government created agencies to address those issues.  Vehicle emissions standards had initially been regulated entirely by our state governments.  The 1963 Clean Air Act led to the 1965 Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act, which led to the Environmental Protection Agency establishing minimal vehicle emissions standards at the national level in 1970, and state governments have the option to enact higher emissions standards within each state should they opt to do so.

The relevant Federal agencies which could decide that auto insurance should be mandatory, thus taking the decision out of the hands of the state governments are the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration; the administrators within both of those agencies could decide that this is an issue related to road safety and they could work with the Department Of Transportation to enact legislation which would make auto insurance mandatory in the entire country.

Police should also be able to ask drivers to show proof of insurance when police pull us over for moving violations.  This is not a rights violation or harassment in any way- police ask us to show active drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations because they need to verify that we are in fact legally permitted to drive and that our cars or trucks are properly registered.  The right to drive an uninsured vehicle is not a civil rights issue, verifying that your vehicle is in fact insured is a safety issue.

I do not see any conflicts with states’ rights or 10th Amendment issues  if the Federal government were to take the decision as to whether or not auto insurance should be mandatory out of the hands of our 50 state governments, and if the Federal government were to state that auto insurance should be mandatory throughout the country.  This is an issue which the Federal government should have recognized as necessary more than half a century ago when our interstate highways were being constructed.

This is not a Democrat or a Republican issue, there aren’t any seriously divisive issues relating to this; no special interest groups or industries actually have anything to lose by not implementing this.  Legislation which will contribute to safer roads, safer highways and safer drivers will benefit everyone- U.S. citizens, foreign drivers who travel to the U.S. for business or for tourism, as well as people around the world whom we export goods to.

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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