Bill to reform auto insurance rates languishes in State House

BAY STATE car owners beware: Another perhaps sizable boost in auto insurance rates may be just around the corner. And those who could help prevent it - state lawmakers - are off on what amounts to an informal vacation.

A House-approved measure to control rate increases may be little more than a modest step toward auto insurance reform. The bill has been languishing in the Senate since June, and its prospects for passage, even in substantially revised form, are questionable.

As determined as some reform-bent members of both lawmaking chambers surely are, there appears to be a lack of real leadership in that direction, even in the face of the 19.2 percent premium hike being sought by car insurers here.

While abandoning the ``no-fault'' insurance concept would seem to make little sense, an overhaul of the system to prevent excessive claims or even outright fraud might go a long way toward at least holding down, premiums for good drivers.

The estimated 10 percent decrease in car insurance rates intended to result from the legislation that cleared the House would be welcome relief to many a motorist. But these benefits might be short-lived, as some critics warn.

Gov. Michael Dukakis throughout his career has been in the forefront of efforts to make sense out of auto insurance in Massachusetts, including early support for the no-fault approach. Obviously he would like nothing better than to bring about further reforms which would at least put the brakes on escalating premiums which have risen 32 percent over the past two years.

Thus far, however, Governor Dukakis has been unable to get all sides, or even most sides, together in support of an approach that is fair to all car owners and auto insurance industry alike.

Already a few companies have ceased to write motor vehicle protection policies in Massachusetts and others have hinted, and none too subtly, they just might do likewise. If, as these companies contend, they are losing money here, they can hardly be expected to stay around in hopes that perhaps someday things will change and a profit can be made in the commonwealth.

But to burden most car owners, including those with flawless driving records, with ever-higher premiums to make this possible is unreasonable. Certainly there must be a lot more good drivers on the roads than poor ones, those who cause or are frequently involved in accidents.

The recently-increased fines for speeding and tougher penalties from drunk driving could indirectly help in lessening the number of accidents and auto insurance claims, at least temporarily.

Since those who disregard the rules of the road and drive recklessly do not expect to be caught, stiffer penalties alone may not of themselves be enough to induce chronic violators to mend their ways.

And to ensure less accidents and fewer claims, certainly a strong case can be made for shifting an increasing portion of the car insurance premium burden onto accident-prone drivers who are a menace to fellow motorists and pedestrians alike.

Also perhaps deserving to pay a lot more are those drivers who leave their keys in the ignition or fail to lock their vehicles when they are not behind wheel, thus providing an open invitation to thieves. That, if nothing else, should help lower appreciably the auto insurer payment to fix up or replace stolen vehicles and in the process erase one of the state's less-proud distinctions - that of ``car theft capital of the world.''

Equally worthy of early lawmaker consideration is at least a partial return to competition for business among insurers writing policies for Massachusetts drivers.

Clearly whatever reforms that are made in the auto insurance system, no matter how modest, should be made long before December when the state insurance commissioner Roger Singer will set the rates for 1989.

If the House-approved legislation is unacceptable to the Senate, as it appears to be, the senators owe it to the state's car owners to bring forth their own measure. Had that happened before the recess began in mid-July conferees from the two lawmaking chambers could be perhaps well along in hammering out a compromise.

Continued climbing premiums for all, or almost all, motorists may do little more than encourage increasing numbers of car owners to under-insure their vehicles - thus affording themselves and others less protection.

Until lawmakers finally come to grips with not merely the problem of high premiums but their causes, more and more state and auto insurance dollars may be be squandered on costly litigation.

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