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Nov. 15--Insured drivers who assume they don't have to worry about expenses from a traffic accident that isn't their fault might want to think again.
Magistrate Judge Mark Anderson estimates that, in the past year or so, roughly a quarter of the cases that have come through his courtrooms have involved an uninsured motorist charge.
Given that number, which he's been tracking in recent months, he estimates that roughly a quarter of the driving public is also uninsured. That's a percentage that seems reasonable to Jamie Drageset, an Aberdeen agent for Farmers Insurance Group.
State law requires that drivers carry at least liability auto insurance. That so many drivers motor around without even that minimal coverage is something more responsible drivers might want to contemplate when selecting insurance options, Anderson and Drageset said
"The impact is so huge because of the catastrophic effects of a car accident on somebody's budget," Anderson said.
In 2011, Anderson said, there were just fewer than 14,000 uninsured motorist filings in South Dakota courts. That number is actually lower than it was in previous years. But, Anderson said, he's seen a significant increase in those cases in recent months. He doesn't know exactly why, but he's inclined to believe it has something to do with the economy.
More than the finances, though, Anderson said, the larger reason some people drive without insurance is a simple lack of accountability.
Of the roughly 14,000 cases last year, he estimated that roughly 75 percent were valid no insurance claims. About a quarter of the time, he said, the charge was likely dismissed after a motorist provided proof of insurance to the local state's attorney's office or the court. In the bulk of other cases that don't result in a guilty plea or finding, the charge was probably dismissed in return for the accused pleading guilty to another crime, often drunken driving, he said.
There were roughly 3,200 guilty pleas to no insurance charges last year in South Dakota, Anderson said.
Anderson oversees magistrate court in Brown and Roberts counties. In first-offense uninsured motorist cases, he orders a person to pay $120 in fines and fees and suspends the offender's license for 30 days. The offender then must show proof of auto insurance before getting the license back.
And drivers who let their insurance lapse will have to pay a considerably higher premium, said Roland Pond, an Aberdeen agent with Insurance Plus.
Drageset said deciding on an auto insurance policy and options is a matter of what someone is comfortable with.
"Every person's risk-taking is different," she said.
If a driver doesn't have the money to pay an auto insurance premium, he or she probably doesn't have the money to pay for the damage caused by an accident, Drageset said.
Uninsured motorist clauses in auto insurance policies are all but standard, Pond said. But, he said, the coverage covers only medical expenses, not property damage.
If a person is in an accident with an uninsured driver and doesn't have comprehensive and collision coverage, he or she might have to pay for repairs even if the accident is the other driver's fault, Pond said. The other option, he said, is to sue the person to cover the costs.
Anderson said he also has a medical expense payment add-on on his policy. It provides money to pay medical expenses up front.
Property damage is one thing, the judge said. Checks for it are generally cut by insurance companies soon after estimates are procured, he said. But whereas the damage to a vehicle is usually easy to assess, that's not always case when people are injured, Anderson said. Insurers don't pay those expenses until cases are resolved, and that can sometimes take a couple of years, he said.
Anderson said people who drive a vehicle belonging to another should ask whether that vehicle-owner has insurance. A little peer pressure might help the uninsured motorist problem, he said.
Because he's a judge, it's no shock that Anderson said he's always been a rule-follower. But many others aren't. And most people would be surprised about how many folks don't have a problem not only driving without proper insurance, but driving without a license.
"It's astounding to me," he said.
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