Thomas D. Penfield, CaseyGerry – As Published in the Legal Examiner
If it seems like more and more fatal hit and run stories are appearing in your news feed, you’re not imagining it.
According to a piece in USA Today, hit and run crashes – and fatalities – are on the increase in this country. The story cites data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which shows that fatal hit-and-run crashes is trending upward, from 1,274 in 2009, to 1,393 in 2010, to 1,449 in 2011, the most recent year statistic were released. Underscoring the problem, the sharp 13.7 increase in hit and runs comes at a time when traffic accidents overall are on the decrease – from 33,883 in 2009 to 32,367 in 2011. Even more alarming, one in five pedestrians killed on America’s roadways is the victim of a hit-and-run crash.
Why this Surge in Serious Hit and Run Accidents?
One reason is the increasing number of uninsured motorists and their tendency to flee the scene of an accident.
For example, even though it is illegal in California to drive without insurance, the Insurance Research Council (IRC) reports that 25 percent of drivers in the state are not insured. On a national level, the IRC report estimates that there are nearly 30 million uninsured motorists in the U.S. – approximately one in eight drivers.
Insurance Journal reports that some of the most densely populated states have the largest numbers of uninsured motorists among them California (4.1 million), Texas (1.6 million), Ohio (1.3 million) and Tennessee (1.2 million).
The numbers of uninsured drivers spiked at the peak of the recession in 2008, but remains high. Not surprisingly, the first thing consumers tend to cut out when times are tough is insurance.
The growing population of undocumented drivers is also fueling this growing problem – especially in Border States. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, immigrants – both legal and illegal – now comprise 13.1 percent of the population. Unfortunately, undocumented drivers – those here illegally – cannot get a driver’s license and, therefore, are unable to get insurance, even if they wanted to.
Another reason for the sharp increase in hit and runs is the fear of increasingly strict Driving Under the Influence (DUI) penalties.
Data from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reveals that about one in five of all pedestrian fatalities are hit-and-runs, with alcohol playing a role in 60% of these.
“Drivers are more likely to run if they feel there is a reason to do so. They’re more likely to have high blood-alcohol content, or they’re driving without a license, or they’re very young drivers,” said Sara Solnick, chairwoman of the Department of Economics at the University of Vermont, who has researched hit-and-runs. Hit and Run Crashes
What Should a Victim of a Hit and Run Do?
If you are the victim of a hit and run, there are several crucial things to do:
In the event you are able to identify the person who hit you, you should be able to retrieve their insurance information and file a claim with their auto insurance company. You can try to get your money through an attorneyand the court system.
If you are unable to identify the person who hit you, or if that person does not carry enough insurance to cover your costs, you can file a claim with your own auto insurance company.
Your insurance company owes you a duty of good faith and fair dealing in working with you on your loss. Although you are not entitled to a jury trial, you are entitled to arbitrate any disputes. This process is relatively fast and inexpensive.
An uninsured driver is one with no insurance, insurance that does not meet state-mandated minimum requirements, or whose insurance company denied their claim. An underinsured driver is just that — one who met minimum legal financial responsibility requirements, but whose payment limits do not cover all damages.
If you are involved in a hit and run accident, you will be in much better off financially if you carry sufficientuninsured or underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) coverage – which should entitle you to ample protection by your insurance company.
Coverage requirements depend on the state. Some require the purchase of UM/UIM coverage, but a majority do not. The states which mandate that drivers purchase both uninsured motorist and underinsured motorist protection include Connecticut, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Virginia. A small number of states require you only buy uninsured motorist coverage, among them: District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, North Carolina (if you buy only required minimum liability), South Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Other states require that you are offered these coverages, but you do not have to accept them. In California, for example, you must sign a waiver acknowledging the coverage was offered if you choose to decline it.
If it is economically viable, consider purchasing the maximum amount of UM coverage so you are financially protected.
There are different minimums in each state. As an example, in California the minimum insurance coverage required for injuries to others is referred to as “15-30-5.″ This means $15,000 is the amount of physical injury liability protection required on a “per person” basis; $30,000 is the total in the event of multiple injured parties; and $5,000 is the coverage if any property was damaged in that accident.
This coverage protects only the other people to whom the policyholder may be liable for causing injuries or property damage. Considering the exorbitant cost of health care and vehicle repair costs, these amounts are rarely sufficient.
If protection limits are exceeded, the policyholder can be held personally responsible for unpaid damages, so it is better to carry higher limits than the “minimum” requirements.
While protecting your personal assets with sufficient insurance for injuries to others is certainly a worthwhile goal, don’t forget to protect yourself as well with uninsured motorist coverage. Again, alternatives for uninsured motorist coverage vary – each state may have different coverage options, available limits and mandatory requirements.
In most cases, UM coverage is relatively inexpensive, and the benefit provided by its cost far outweighs the potential financial damage that can be sustained. Is it worth paying say, $100 per year for the peace of mind that comes from protecting yourself with $1 million in UM coverage? For most people, the answer would be yes. Check with your insurance company what the exact additional cost would be, as it will vary for each person – and state.
In any event, act preemptively and protect yourself from a financial crisis that can result from an uninsured/underinsured driver and/or the hit and run scenario.
With hit and run accidents on the rise, it is more important than ever to be aware of the dangers – and be well protected.
Thomas D. Penfield is a partner at San Diego-based CaseyGerry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org