Uninsured Drivers

Insurance attorneys can attest to the number of uninsured drivers in Texas. The Austin American Statesman published an article this week discussing this issue. The title of the article is, “Damage From Uninsured, Unlicensed Drivers Last Well Past Crashes.”
It was just after midnight on Dec. 28 as Nicole DeAngelis was returning from the airport when a car with a black racing stripe suddenly cut across her lane and braked. She tried to stop but slammed into it. As she pulled over, the car sped away.
Luckily for her — less lucky for the young driver with whom she collided — the road he chose for his escape was a dead end, according to court accounts describing the incident. By the time Hector Gutierrez-Chavez returned, Austin police were waiting. It turned out to be DeAngelis’ last piece of good news. Police and court records show that Gutierrez-Chavez, 20, shouldn’t have been driving the 2014 Dodge Challenger at all. He had no valid license — something for which Austin police had cited him five times previously. He was also uninsured.
With DeAngelis not having special coverage to protect her from uninsured drivers, that meant there was no one to pick up the $5,000 tab to repair her car, a $400 towing charge and the $408 she later paid for a rental car.
Aside from her pounding pulse, DeAngelis was physically fine. “We were very grateful she wasn’t hurt,” said her mother, Janice. But surely, they thought, there was some way to avoid paying for a crash that clearly was not her fault.
They launched a family investigation. Nicole, a project manager, and her mother, a retired paralegal, and father, a hospital executive, were unusually tenacious and sophisticated clients of the traffic court system. They traced the car that hit her, examined the driver’s record, analyzed his court history, pestered prosecutors.
And came away baffled. TheyWe were led on a very wild chase.
Nearly a year later, their efforts to recover any money have been met only with frustration. “How is someone like this able to keeping walking away and continue doing what he’s been doing?”
The problem of uninsured and unlicensed Texas drivers is at once small and huge. Compared with Austin’s traffic fatalities – the number of 2015 deaths has already surpassed every other year in the past three decades – fender benders or even minor injury crashes are relatively small problems.
Yet their volume also renders them of enormous significance to tens of thousands of Texans. Although the number has been dropping steadily, state records show about 2 million vehicles registered in Texas don’t have corresponding insurance. In Travis County, it’s about 79,000 vehicles. Austin police record an average of 50 citations every day for drivers stopped without a valid license.
Inevitably, many drivers without licenses or insurance coverage crash. The Insurance Research Council, a nonprofit funded by the industry, calculated that medical claims made by Texas drivers with uninsured motorist coverage came to $110 million in 2012, the last year for which figures are available. While no organization appears to tally property damage, a wreck involving an uninsured driver can easily reach thousands of dollars of out-of-pocket expense.
Experts say dollars and cents are only one measure of the damage caused by illegal motorists. Nearly one-third of Austin’s fatality crashes in 2014 involved a driver without a valid license, department figures show.
Of those, two-thirds were speeding, 90 percent were impaired and nearly 60 percent had at least four previous license suspensions, suggesting that motorists who ignore their paperwork also tend to disregard other traffic laws. Having no driver’s license won’t kill you. But the beliefs that go along with that can be deadly.
Law enforcement officials say a certain number of motorists will always drive without insurance or a license. Some can’t afford the costs. Others may simply choose to ignore or game the law. Sales of one-month vehicle insurance policies – enough to permit a motorist to legally obtain a driver’s license before the policy expires – are common.
Yet policies promoted by Texas lawmakers also have produced more illegal drivers than otherwise would exist.
The Texas Driver Responsibility Program was passed in 2003 with the promise of raising money for the then-cash-strapped government and making roads safer. It levies civil surcharges against people who are convicted of driving without a license or insurance, or driving while intoxicated, or who are habitual traffic offenders. The fees are on top of any criminal fines and court costs defendants pay.
The fees, which with nonpayment penalties that can quickly escalate into thousands of dollars, create a cycle that unnecessarily makes and keeps drivers illegal, said Emily Gerrick of Texas Fair Defense Project, which has advocated repealing the program. Many can’t pay – about 60 percent of the surcharges go uncollected – so they simply continue to drive illegally because they must. Others living paycheck to paycheck may stop buying insurance to cover their fines – meaning they, too, eventually lose their licenses.
According to the Department of Public Safety, more than 1.3 million Texas drivers currently have their licenses suspended through the surcharge program. The top reason, said Gerrick: fees for driving without insurance and driving without a license.
The program “is actually putting more cars on the road without licenses – making public safety more dangerous,” she said.
It has been such a failure that one of the lawmakers who created it recently begged the Legislature to trash it.
This program was never intended to cause as much harm as it has to Texas families. For many individuals, the program has dramatically and negatively impacted their ability to work and has resulted in more unlicensed and uninsured drivers on the road.
Yet hospitals, which are recipients of the surcharge fees, have successfully lobbied politicians to keep the program alive.
We recognize the funding mechanism is not ideal, said John Hawkins of the Texas Hospital Association. But, he added, until lawmakers figure out how to replace the money, the industry will continue to oppose the surcharge program’s repeal.