AFN file photo

Acknowledging it will mean higher costs for some, a Senate panel voted last week to increase the amount of liability insurance motorists will have to purchase to drive on Arizona roads.

The 6-1 vote by the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure came despite opposition from the insurance industry. Lobbyists said anything that increases costs will mean more people choosing to drive without insurance despite laws making that illegal.

But Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, who chairs the panel, said he believes the change would add only about $7 to $8 a month more to the average bill of those affected, a number he said should not make a big difference in the state's current 12 percent rate of uninsured motorists.

And he also suggested it's time to revisit the statute, noting that the amount of coverage now required under Arizona law has not changed in more than 40 years.

That law requires purchase of so-called 15/30/10 liability: $15,000 for injury to any one person, $30,000 for all injuries in a single accident, and $10,000 for damage to property, including someone else's vehicle. SB 1111 would increase those limits to $25,000, $50,000 and $25,000 respectively.

Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, said there's a practical problem with the current statutory minimum.

"We send a signal or a message to Arizona consumers that this is enough, that if I buy this, it'll be OK,'' she said. "More and more consumers are finding out, in fact the hard way, that it's not.''

But David Childers, who lobbies for the Property and Casualty Insurance Association, questioned whether there really is a need to force motorists to buy more protection.

He cited a study which said about 85 percent of all insurance claims for bodily injury are settled for $7,200 or less. And Childers said property damage claims generally fall into the $3,000 to $4,000 range.

Childers said there will always be some claims above that and above the state minimum coverage requirement. But he said that will always be the case, no matter how much insurance lawmakers mandate that motorists purchase.

"By doing it, what you'll accomplish is you will have increased premiums for the group that's least able to buy more insurance,'' Childers said, estimating that about one out of every five vehicle owners buys as little as legally required.

"You're essentially putting the price of the increase in premiums on the back of the people who can least afford it.''

That sentiment was echoed by Ellen Poole, who lobbies for a group that specializes in providing coverage for those in the military.

She rattled off some salaries for privates and lower-level enlistees, saying they tend to purchase the least amount necessary "to get their cars on the road.'' And Poole said they're not concerned about having insufficient coverage because they're pretty much "judgment-proof,'' having few personal assets that can be seized if the injuries or damages they cause exceed their insurance.

Several lawmakers, however, said that does not address the other side of the equation: The damages sustained by those hit by motorists.

A 2015 study done by legislative budget staffers said forcing motorists to buy more insurance would reduce the costs to the state's Medicaid program. That's because when those who are injured cannot get compensated by the at-fault party they can wind up eligible for government-provided health care.

That same study also said the state would gain because motorists who take out signs, guardrails and other property along highways would have the coverage to pay the full costs.

A task force which looked at the issue this past year said that of $16 million in such damage in the last three years, about $6 million was unrecoverable, mostly because the drivers did not have sufficient insurance.

Kelsey Lundy, lobbyist for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, said her client's problems with SB 1111 is the belief that higher premiums will lead to more motorists driving without insurance. And what that means, she said, is higher costs when her company's cars are damaged by uninsured drivers.

But Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, said that ignores the fact that if the motorists with coverage actually have more insurance, they will be better able to pay for the damages they cause. Lundy conceded that's possible but said she still believes her client is better off under the current system.

 

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