Tahlequah Daily Press

April 9, 2013

Lack of insurance a complex issue


TAHLEQUAH — If a bill wending its way through the Oklahoma House is intended to take punitive action against uninsured drivers, it might work as planned. But unfortunately, the bill’s author doesn’t have much evidence to back up his assertion that it will lower the number of uninsured drivers.

Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, undoubtedly shares the frustration of many law-abiding Okies who dutifully pay their rising premiums, as they’re required to do. Meanwhile, some of their friends and neighbors thumb their noses at state law, and tool around without insurance, heedless of the consequences. Eventually, many of these folks will be involved in traffic accidents, and if it’s their fault, their innocent victims will be left holding the bag.

Nelson has probably looked at statistics, and knows many families whose lives have crumbled into financial ruin after accidents with an uninsured motorists. Sky-high medical bills and the cost of vehicle repairs, or a completely new car, can decimate a family’s budget. When an uninsured motorist is to blame, justice is difficult to achieve, and financial recompense nearly impossible. And nearly a quarter of Oklahomans are without automobile insurance.

Nelson’s proposal takes aim at “insurance deadbeats” by preventing them from collecting monetary damages from an automobile accident, even if someone else is to blame. The bill includes certain exemptions – for instance, if the faulted driver deliberately crashed or was intoxicated.

Democrats on the committee that passed the bill onto the full House speculated the measure may violate the state constitution, and Nelson admitted he didn’t know if it did. Perhaps he should have gotten his ducks in a straighter row before he sponsored the bill, because if it becomes law and is later challenged, the taxpayers will be enriching another gaggle of attorneys.

Another question was asked about the bill’s effectiveness in tamping down the number of uninsured motorists. In fact, the Insurance Research Council has determined similar bills have brought down that number by less than 2 percent. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.

There’s little doubt the bill would punish the uninsured, in pretty much the same way the so-called “debtor’s prison” would take society’s revenge on folks who don’t pay their bills. For many people who have fallen on hard times, it’s not a matter of refusing to repay their debts; it’s a case of the inability to do so. And while it’s certainly true that many people forego insurance so they can afford to buy booze and meth and pay for cable TV, others give up relative luxuries like insurance so they can put food on the table. The old axiom that you can’t take blood from a turnip applies well to this scenario.

It’s a difficult dilemma, and Nelson’s instincts are understandable. But if the constitutionality of the measure is in question, he should deal with that now, rather than later. And he and other House members need to decide whether they want to lump those who are needy through no fault of their own with the chronic deadbeats.

No one who breaks the allow should be able to enrich himself at table of someone else’s misery. But shouldn’t the person who’s at fault – regardless of insurance status – have to shoulder the brunt of the responsibility?

Another question worth asking: If lawmakers are so bent on making drivers accept responsibility for their actions, their insurance and so forth, why do they keep spurning attempts to pass a law against texting while driving? It might be tempting to say it’s a Republican-vs.-Democrat situation, with the Republicans shunning any attempts to limit personal freedoms, even when public safety is a prime concern.

There’s probably a simpler explanation. While all Oklahoma legislators can afford automobile insurance, thanks to the generosity of taxpayers, they probably feel they can’t afford to give up texting and driving.

The rest of us can be forgiven for suspecting many of those who would be pulled over for texting infractions would be motoring to and from the statehouse.