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Protecting consumers from uninsured motorists: an alternative financing mechanism.

For over 65 years, state legislators have debated how consumers who have been injured by financially irresponsible motorists will be compensated. While uninsured motorists insurance has become the modal choice among several states, responsible motorists in most states must completely pay for this coverage themselves. Motorists who drive without liability insurance contribute virtually nothing to meeting the costs of accidents they cause. This paper proposes that premiums for basic limits of uninsured motorists coverage be collected by a small universal motor fuel surcharge. These state-collected premiums then would be distributed to insurers on the basis of the number of vehicles that they insure within the jurisdiction. It is proffered that this mechanism is both more equitable and significantly lower in cost for the average motorist than the various present mechanisms of financing uninsured motorists coverage.

Recently, consumers in geographically dispersed sections of the country have found it increasingly difficult and more expensive to obtain automobile liability insurance. Some insurers have withdrawn from markets in Massachusetts and New Jersey alleging inadequate rates of return. With the 1988 California passage of Proposition 103, many insurers have limited new business. The inevitable outcome of higher premiums and reduced availability will be increasing numbers of uninsured motorists on the nation's highways. Industry sources have estimated that over 16 percent of registered motor vehicles already are uninsured; in some states the estimates are as high as 50 percent (Garcia 1989, 1990; Long and Gregg 1965; Melloan 1988; Synnott 1983).

Concamitant with increasing numbers of uninsured motorists is the issue of how injured consumers will be compensated for damages imposed by financially irresponsible motorists. For over half a century, state legislatures have contended with this issue. In efforts to guarantee compensation to those injured in motor vehicle accidents, legislatures in several states have enacted five broad types of overlapping statutes, ranging from auto financial responsibility laws to no-fault auto insurance laws. The existence of multiple laws in most states suggests that an effective solution has yet to be found.

The consumer decision of whether or not to purchase auto liability insurance has distinct public good aspects. There are clear externalities or spillovers associated with this decision (Keeton and Kwerel 1984). There have been longstanding attempts by state legislators to intervene. But to date, the Achilles heel in every attempt to contend with financially irresponsible motorists has been enforcement. Because enforcing financial responsibility statutes through denial of highway use has proven difficult, it is reasonable to expect that significant evasion exists (Synnott 1983).

For instance, Virginia is one of many states, which as a condition of registration, asks the registrant whether the vehicle is insured for at least the state-mandated minimum liability limits as one means of satisfying its financial responsibility law. In 1988, 0.12 percent of those seeking registration volunteered that they had not purchased liability insurance. Yet in the same year, when 338,000 owners of Virginia registered vehicles were asked randomly by the Commonwealth to document their coverage, almost 20,000 (5.91 percent) could not do so (Virginia 1989). Thus, for every one acknowledged uninsured motorist, there were 50 unacknowledged "free riders."

While a number of researchers have investigated the costs imposed on society by uninsured motorists (Calabresi 1970; Keeton and Kwerel 1984; Vickery 1969), less research has been conducted on using public sector financing mechanisms to address motor vehicle insurance issues. Over the last 20 years, several authors have proposed that to varying degrees auto insurance could be purchased via a tax on motor fuel. Hoffer and Miller (1979, 1983), Moynihan (1967), Tyler and Hoffer (1973), and Vickery (1969) have discussed this possibility. However, none have specifically applied the concept to the financing of uninsured motorist (UM) insurance.

It is the purpose of this paper to present an alternative financing mechanism for UM insurance. Specifically, as outlined here, underwriters of automobile liability insurance would provide basic limits of UM insurance to those who purchase at least basic limits of auto liability insurance. This basic UM coverage would be financed by a small universal motor fuel levy. This state-collected levy would be distributed to insurers on the basis of the number of vehicles they insure within the state. Such a system of UM financing, when coupled with existing financial responsibility statutes, would increase the equitable distribution of damage costs caused by financially irresponsible motorists.

The next section briefly reviews the background of how states have attempted to guarantee payment to those injured in motor vehicle accidents. The proposal is developed and the model is applied to the loss experiences of three states. The paper concludes with a few comments on implementation.

PROTECTING CONSUMERS FROM UNINSURED MOTORISTS:

THE PRESENT SYSTEM

Until the mid-1920s, state legislature gave little attention to the consumer purchase of automobile liability insurance. But, by 1925, with over 20 million vehicles on the road, increasingly the consumer decision of whether to purchase vehicle liability insurance was having significant externalities, as third parties were left uncompensated for injuries imposed by financially irresponsible motorists. Massachusetts enacted the first compulsory vehicle insurance legislation in 1927; by the beginning of World War II, 34 states and every Canadian province had some form of financial responsibility statute (Kulp 1942).

Today, every state has enacted at least one of the following types of statutes: financial responsibility, compulsory motor vehicle liability insurance, unsatisfied judgment fund laws, uninsured motorists coverage, and/or no-fault auto insurance. The distribution of these statutes is found in Table 1.

As Table 1 shows, the most widely enacted type of statute is UM coverage. Twenty states mandate such coverage, while in the other 30, insurers are required to offer the coverage as optional. Over 95 percent of insurance consumers in the 30 states where coverage is optional elect to purchase UM coverage (O'Connell and Joost 1986). UM statutes date from the mid-1950s, when the insurance industry promoted the coverage as an alternative to compulsory auto liability insurance. In essence, motor vehicle insurance consumers purchase UM coverage to protect themselves from damages caused by motorists who are not covered by liability insurance and are unlikely to

[TABULAR DATA OMITTED]

have financial assets to satisfy the claim amount; as noted previously, at least 20 states make such purchase mandatory.

UM coverage pays bodily injury damages and in some states also property damages imposed by uninsured and underinsured motorists, including "hit and run" drivers. Under UM coverage, the injured party's insurance company covers claims which in tort are the legal liability of the financially irresponsible motorist. UM is obligated to pay claims only if the financially irresponsible motorist's legal liability for damages can be established. It is therefore not first-party coverage. In an interesting twist, the insured party's insurer may choose to defend the uninsured motorist against the insured should the insurer dispute the claim.

While UM coverage has increased the likelihood that injured parties will be compensated for the losses imposed by un/underinsured motorists, the current financing system warrants further study for several reasons. First, there is the question of equity. Insureds pay virtually all the cost of protecting themselves from those who are uninsured. Current financing of UM coverage creates "free riders" who pass the cost of the damages they cause to those who purchase UM coverage. Secondly, although all states require UM coverage to be offered, not all states mandate UM coverage. Still fewer states include property damage losses in UM coverage (American Insurance Association 1988). Third, at present, UM coverage is a fixed cost for those who purchase it; the premiums that motorists pay are uniform regardless of any rating characteristics possessed by the insured, and therefore, have little correlation to potential loss exposure. The UM premium structure outlined in the next section addresses these issues.

THE PROPOSAL AND SEVERAL APPLICATIONS TO EXPERIENCE

It is proposed that insurers selling motor vehicle liability policies in a state be required to attach basic limits of UM coverage to the policy. The "premiums" for this basic limits coverage would come from a motor fuel levy. Motorists desiring additional underinsured motorist coverage could pay premiums for these higher limits directly to their insurer.

The basic limits UM premium would be collected at a very low marginal cost, because collections would be made by the existing state agencies that currently collect motor fuel user charges. For example, in September 1990, the national average for state-levied motor fuel texas was 16 cents per gallon. If the UM premium were, say, 1.5 cents per gallon, then the posted state-levied pump fees would be 17.5 cents per gallon. These state-collected premiums would be distributed to insurers writing liability insurance on the basis of the number of vehicles that they insure within the state. This mechanism is currently used in Virginia to distribute the $400 UM fee to auto liability insurers. Insurers would be required to use these funds to finance statutory minimum UM coverage for all vehicles they insure within the state.

Table 2 details for several states the UM insurance surcharge necessary to cover the UM incurred losses over the most recent periods for which data are available. Oregon, Virginia, and Wisconsin are chosen for geographic and size diversity. Based on motor vehicle registrations and motor fuel usage, Virginia, the largest, is almost three times larger than Oregon, the smallest in the study. Each of the three states currently requires UM coverage. None is a no-fault state. As auto insurance is state-regulated and because driving conditions and loss experiences vary widely by state, analysis of national data would have little application and will not be attempted here.

Table 2 shows the estimated premiums in the three states. For example, Virginia, a semi-urbanized state with approximately Five million registered motor vehicles, requires a minimum liability coverage of "25/50/20" as one means of satisfying its financial responsibility

[TABULAR DATA OMITTED]

law. Liability coverage of "25/50/20" is interpreted as $25,000 bodily injury coverage per person, per accident; $50,000 bodily injury for all persons, per accident; and $20,000 property damage per accident. Motorists purchasing liability coverage also are required to purchase UM coverage for at least the state-mandated minimums. However, Virginia is unique in that those choosing not to purchase liability insurance coverage are required to pay a $400 fee in order to register each uninsured vehicle. This fee, collected by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), is distributed after collection expenses on a pro rata basis to all firms writing motor vehicle liability insurance in the Commonwealth.

The most recent available data for Virginia are presented in Table 2. At that time, the UM premium, paid by all Virginia consumers who purchased liability insurance, was $16 for their first vehicle and $14 for each additional vehicle on the same policy. Together with $3.1 million in UM fees paid by motorists who volunteered that they carried no liability insurance, Virginia consumers paid approximately $65.8 million in UM premiums.

In the same year, insurers incurred losses of $61.0 million from accidents caused by uninsured motorists. These losses are inclusive of pro rata fixed and variable production costs as well as the administrative costs associated with distributing the UM fee to each insurer. In the same year, 3.4 billion gallons of motor fuel were purchased for highway use in Virginia. These gallonage data are net of refunds for off-highway use and highway use outside the Commonwealth. With a short-run demand price elasticity of 0.2 for motor fuel (Bohi 1981), a UM surcharge of $0.018 per gallon in Virginia would have covered the incurred losses, inclusive of fully apportioned operating expenses. The rate of return allowed by the regulatory process has been included as an operating expense.

As Table 2 shows, the UM rates for essentially comparable coverage in Oregon and Wisconsin are estimated to have been $ 0.023 and $0.013 per gallon, respectively. State administrative costs have been estimated based on experience in Virginia. The relatively wide differential among the three states is indicative of the significant differences in loss experiences among the states and is illustrative of why countrywide averages would be misleading.

Under the UM premium structure outlined, UM premiums become a variable instead of a fixed cost. As expected losses are in part a function of exposure, tying UM coverage to mileage and congestion is desirable on equity grounds, with motor fuel consumption being the metering device. Thus, consumer UM premiums would be a function of miles driven, degree of congestion, driving style, and vehicle fuel efficiency.

Two examples illustrate this point: a Virginia motorist who drives the national average of 12,000 miles per year and who obtains 20 miles per gallon from a vehicle would have paid $10.80 in UM premiums. Recall UM premiums in Virginia were $16.00 for the first vehicle on the policy. A motorist driving twice as far (24,000 miles annually) or obtaining only ten miles per gallon would have paid $21.60 in UM premiums, slightly more than under the premium structure then in effect.

This example highlights a subtle positive externality of this financing mechanism. All things being equal, a consumer's UM premium is a function of vehicle fuel efficiency, annual mileage driven, and driving style. Thus, one can lower the UM premium by driving less, driving more fuel efficient vehicles, and driving less aggressively, each of which is consistent with public policy objectives. Variables such as age, sex, and vehicle domicile, underwriting variables currently under attack, are not per se a rate-making variable for the consumer.

Under the proposal, UM premiums for the average motorist decline even in a state like Virginia, which has approximately one-third the national average percentage of uninsured motorists, largely because financially irresponsible motorists, who pay virtually no premiums under the present system, would pay UM premiums via the motor fuel levy. Evasion becomes almost moot. It follows that consumer savings will be disproportionately greater in states with higher percentages of uninsured motorists.

IMPLEMENTATION CONSIDERATIONS: PHILOSOPHICAL AND PRACTICAL

Adoption and implementation of the UM insurance system outlined would raise some philosophical and practical issues. Some will be briefly discussed.

Philosophical Issues

Role of the public sector

Tying UM insurance to motor fuel consumption involves the public sector in premium collection. The public sector's ability to collect premiums at a law marginal cost represents an attribute. Nonetheless, governmental participation in the premium collection process represents increased public incursion into the private sector for some states. In other states, this process may involve actually less government sector incursion. For instance, UM fees would no longer be collected.

Premium discrimination

Inherent in the system is a basis for discrimination. For all things being equal, two motorists with the same driving characteristics will pay UM premiums based on the fuel efficiencies of their motor vehicles and the nature of their driving (e.g., urban or rural). Although the legality of such discrimination might be challenged, a similar situation presently exists in highway user charge payments made by two vehicles of the same weight with different fuel efficiencies. Because of the low premium level, the absolute differences paid by two motorists will be necessarily small. For instance, if the UM premium were 1.5 cents per gallon, the per mile premium differential between two motorists with fuel efficiencies of 10 and 20 miles per gallon would be $0.00075.

The argument could be made that because more fuel efficient cars tend to be smaller and because the personal injury loss experience has been worse for these vehicle sizes (Highway Loss Data Institute 1989), the premium structure is perverse. But again, the absolute differential is small. Furthermore, as safety technology improves this factor should diminish. And, as noted the incentive is consistent with public policy objectives. To the extent that it is in the public interest to conserve energy, preserve the environment, and introduce variables that do not discriminate on the basis of sex or age in the insurance underwriting process, the pricing incentives of this proposal are positive.

Relationship to other compensation systems

Table 1 shows that 21 states currently mandate UM coverage for those purchasing auto liability insurance. For the remainder of the states, mandatory UM coverage would represnet a further incursion into the auto insurance system on the part of government.

As noted, public sector remedies which seek to guarantee compensation to victims of motor vehicle accidents have been imposed since the 1920s. While many believe that the tort system cannot accomplish speedy, certain compensation for the majority of injured motorists, only 13 states (Table 1) have established meaningful no-fault statutes. In these states UM coverage is not the primary payor for accident compensation arising from the negligence of financially irresponsible motorists. In states continuing to exclusively use the tort system as the basis for motor vehicle accident compensation, the problem of being injured by a financially irresponsible motorist requires UM coverage to at least be offered, if not made compulsory. In these states the proposed system would bring some increased incursion into liability insurance system. Such incursion, however, is already found in states that collect fees from uninsured motorists as a condition of licensure or vehicle registration. While the proposed system adds less in states with meaningful no-fault statutes, the system offers improvements in equity and efficiency for tort system states. At present, UM coverage is defined by state statute and policy language. As envisioned, financing UM coverage via a motor fuel surcharge would not change coverage; i.e., only those purchasing motor vehicle liability and therefore UM coverage would be covered. However, several practical issues arise relating to coverage by virtue of the proposed method of financing.

Practical Issues

Defining coverage

For example, assume Ohio adopted such a plan while Minnesota did not. A properly licensed and insured Ohio vehicle would be covered if it were hit by an uninsured motorist in Minnesota, although obviously the fuel consumed at the time of the incident did not include the UM premium.

Similarly, out-of-state vehicles traveling within Ohio would not be afforded Ohio UM coverage. For instance, if an uninsured Minnesota vehicle incurred losses as the result of actions by an uninsured Ohio motorist, neither party would be covered by the Ohio UM program. However, a properly licensed and insured Ohio motorist would be protected from injuries imposed by the at-fault uninsured Minnesota motorist.

Because the cost of applying for and processing refunds would be greater than the surcharge paid by out-of-state vehicles, no refunds are envisioned. Consumers who wished to purchase UM coverage in excess of the state-mandated limits and thereby affect underinsured motorist coverage could continue to purchase such coverage from their insurer in the same manner that they currently do. In those states which currently have compulsory UM laws, this proposal does not alter any existing relationships regarding the marketing of UM insurance. Only the method of financing basic limits coverage is affected.

Premium disbursement

The state agency collecting motor fuel taxes would disburse premiums, upon instructions from the state's insurance bureau, to insuers on the basis of vehicles insured within the state. Premiums would be distributed at the beginning of the quarter based on the number of vehicles at some point during the previous quarter. Such a system would provide insurers with advance premiums as is customary in most forms of insurance. As the UM premium received by the insurer inlcudes all presently allowed costs and rates of return, there should be no additional incentives (other than currently exist) for the firm to alter rates for other policy coverages.

Premium evasion

If a system of tying UM coverage to motor fuel consumption is adopted selectively by noncontiguous states, a very slight incentive exists for border residents to purchase cheaper fuel out of state. However, by any measure the UM premium is small relative to the average or marginal cost of operating a motor vehicle. Referring to the previous example, it is estimate the UM coverage on a per mile basis represents 0.004 percent of the 1989 IRS-estimated cost of operating a motor vehicle.

For psychological reasons, both commercial and noncommercial interstate motorists may delay motor fuel purchases until they reach a nonparticipating state. Uncertainty about price and availability tends to lower gasoline price elasticity for the occasional interstate motorist. Currently all but six states enforce motor fuel purchase requirements on heavy vehicles. Under these requirements, operators must show evidence that their purchase of motor fuels within a state at least equals consumption therein. This effectively eliminates evasion potential by interstate commercial operators.

Barriers to Passage

As the proposed method of financing UM insurance requires legislative action, several constituencies can be expected to study the matter closely. Groups that appear to be affected by the proposal include insurance agents, insurance companies, consumers of large quantities of motor fuel, and plaintiffs' lawyers.

Insurance agents would see a small reduction in their commissions because basic limits UM insurance would be financed by the fuel surcharge. For instance, during the period of this study, UM coverage rates in Virginia were $16.00 per year for the first car and $14.00 for the second. Under a 15 percent agent commission structure, an agent insuring a two-car family would lose $4.50 per policy per year. If the annual premium was $700 this would represent a decline in auto policy commission income of about four percent.

Insurance companies may be leery of greater governmental instrusion in the insurance process. Recent experiences with the residual market mechanisms in Maryland and New Jersey and the strictly regulated auto insurance market in Massachusetts have made the industry wary of greater governmental intrusion. However, insurance companies may welcome a financing system that, while illusory, reduces premiums they collect from their insureds.

Consumers of large quantities of motor fuel, such as motor carriers, can be expected to oppose any increase in the cost of motor fuel. Even though these firms should see a reduction in their insurance premiums, they would experience higher total cost for insurance under the proposed method of financing which ties premiums to fuel consumption.

Plaintiffs' lawyers would be expected to support the proposed financing system as it leaves the tort system intact. Lowering explicit insurance premiums also could blunt some of the current criticism now leveled at the tort system.

SUMMARY

An alternative approach for consumer procurement of basic limits of uninsured motorist insurance has been presented. The essence of this alternative is that all insurers selling motor vehicle liability insurance in a non no-fault state would be required to include basic limits of UM coverage with each consumer's liability policy. Premiums for this UM coverage would be collected through the imposition of a small per gallon surcharge on motor fuels. These premiums would be collected by the same agencies which now collect motor fuel taxes in every state. Collected in this manner at a very low marginal cost, the premiums would be distributed, on instructions from the state's insurance bureau, to licensed insurers writing motor vehicle liability insurance in the state on a vehicle pro rata basis. Those consumers wishing to purchase UM limits greater than state mandated minimums, and, thereby affect underinsured motorist coverage, could do so through their existing marketing channel.

Administering rate changes for basic limits of UM coverage would not differ from the system currently followed in many states. For example, auto liability rates in Virginia are not subject to prior approval, but UM rates are. Analysis for the UM rate adjustment process is usually performed by a consulting actuary. Such a rate revision system is consistent with this proposal.

Attempts to abandon the tort system in favor of true no-fault coverage have been unsuccessful in the majority of states. Tort systems, while excellent at establishing fault, cannot ensure compensation for the victims of financially irresponsible people. The present system of financing UM insurance allows financially irresponsible motorists, as a group, to evade the cost of their negligence. By distributing the cost of accidents caused by such motorists via a motor fuel charge, these "free riders" no longer "ride free." At the same time, the proposed system reduces the cost for motorists who purchase liability insurance and mandatory UM coverage.

While the UM insurance proposal outlined would not solve the persistent issues of auto insurance availability and affordability, it could make several contributions. First, this means of financing UM premiums provides an interesting approach to realizing the intent of most financial responsibility laws, i.e., that those responsible for losses should contribute to the restoration of those injured. Second, by metering the cost of insurance premiums to miles driven via the fuel surcharge, successful management of a limited UM program could provide insight into the viability of more extensive use of this method of premium collection and allocation, such as that proposed by Hoffer and Miller (1979, 1983) and Vickery (1969). These authors proposed that auto liability insurance, in large part, be financed by a state-levied, universal motor fuel surcharge. Finally, if the private sector continues to withdraw from markets in selected states, the experience generated by this system could be valuable in analyzing alternatives. The system outlined for financing UM coverage warrants further research, as it has the potential for improving both equity and efficiency, when compared to the myriad of systems that many consumers now face.

REFERENCES

American Insurance Association (1988), Summary of Selected State Laws and Regulations Relating to Automobile Insurance, Washington, DC.

Bohi, D. R. (1981), Analyzing Demand Behavior, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Calabresi, G. (1970), The Cost of Accidents: And Legal and Economic Analysis, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Garcia, B. E. (1989), "A Radical Revision of Auto Insurance Backfires in New Jersey," The Wall Street Journal (October 17): 41.

Garcia, B. E. (1990), "Single Carrier Auto Insurance Plans Gain Attention as a Way to Cut Premiums," The Wall Street Journal (February 22): A16.

Highway Loss Data Institute (1989), Insurance Industry Report: 1985-1987 Models, 188-1, Washington, DC: Author (September).

Hoffer, G. E. and E. G. Miller (1979), "The Distribution of Automobile Liability Insurance: An Alternative," Journal of Risk and Insurance, 46 (4, September):441-450.

Hoffer, G. E. and E. G. Miller (1983), "Tying Motor Vehicle Liability Premiums to Motor Fuel Consumption," The Journal of Consumer Affairs, 17 (1, Summer):208-221.

Insurance Services Office (1987a), "Oregon Review of Private Passenger Automobile Liability Insurance Loss Costs: Uninsured Motorists Experience, Private Passenger Cars," letter, San Francisco, CA.

Insurance Services Office (1987b), "Wisconsin Review of Private Passenger Automobile Liability Insurance Loss Costs: Uninsured Motorists Experience, Private Passenger Cars," letter, Lombard, IL.

Insurance Services Office (1989), "Virginia Revision to the Virginia CLM and Supplementary Rating Procedures of UM Property Damage Limit and UM Premium Increase," letter (September), Atlanta, GA.

Keeton, W. R. and E. Kwerel (1984), "Externalities in Automobile Insurance and the Under-insured Driver Problem," Journal of Law and Economics, 27 (April): 149-180.

Kulp, C. A. (1942), Casualty Insurance, revised edition, New York: The Ronald Press Co.

Long, J. D. and D. W. Gregg (1965), Property and Liability Insurance Handbook, Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin.

Melloan, G. (1988), "How to Create an Automobile Insurance Mess," The Wall Street Journal (September 13): 37.

Moynihan, D. P. (1967), "Automobile Insurance," The New York Times Magazines, VI (Augst 27):26.

O'Connell, J. O. and R. H. Joost (1986), "Giving Motorists a Choice Between Fault and No-Fault Insurance," Virginia Law Review, 72:61-81.

Synnott, P. A. (1983), "Uninsured or Underinsured," Professional Agents Report: 33-39.

Tyler, G. R. and G. E. Hoffer (1973), "Reform of the Non-Commercial Vehicle Liability Insurance Market," Journal of Risk and Insurance, 40(4, December): 565-574.

U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration (1988), Highway Statistics 1919-1986, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Vickery, W. (1969), "Current issues in Transporation," in Contemporary Economic Problems, N. W. Chamberlain (ed.), Homewood, IL: R. D. Irwin Inc.: 185-240.

Virginia, Commonwealth of (1989), Uninsured Motorists, House Document No. 4, Richmond.

Virginia, Commonwealth of, Division of Motor Vehicles (1987), Annual Report 1986, Richmond.

George E. Hoffer is Professor of Economics, Department of Economics, and Elbert G. Miller is Associate Professor of Insurance, Department of Finance, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA.
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Author:Hoffer, George E.; Miller, Elbert G.
Publication:Journal of Consumer Affairs
Date:Dec 22, 1991
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