Motorists caught in the region without insurance increased 17 percent in the past four years, costing insured drivers millions of dollars, insurance experts said.
Some officials worry drivers increasingly are ditching their coverage or allowing it to lapse for financial reasons due to the economy. Ohio law forbids motorists to get behind the wheel without insurance, and uninsured drivers who cause an accident are liable for damages.
But collecting from an uninsured driver is difficult.
“It’s like getting a judgment against a rock,” said John Carlson, an attorney with Dyer, Garofalo, Mann & Schultz in Dayton. “Chasing after a deadbeat is very difficult.”
In 2011, about 172,606 people in Butler, Champaign, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties had their licenses suspended because they were unable to provide proof of insurance coverage, according to data from the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
Suspensions were up 4 percent from 2010, 9 percent from 2009 and 17 percent from 2008. Statewide, suspensions resulting from motorists lacking insurance rose by about 10 percent between 2008 and 2011.
Law-abiding motorists often get stuck with significant bills when they are in wrecks with uninsured drivers. Drivers can choose to pay extra for coverage that protects against uninsured drivers, or they can seek compensation in civil court following a crash involving the uninsured.
The USA Today reported wrecks involving uninsured drivers cost insured motorists $10.8 billion in 2007, according to the most recent data from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
Authorities identify uninsured motorists when they are involved in crashes, pulled over for traffic offenses or randomly selected by the state to prove they have coverage.
The Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles each week distributes about 5,400 notices to vehicle owners requesting proof of insurance. Failure to produce the appropriate documents leads to an automatic suspension.
A larger share of drivers in Ohio are uninsured than the national average, said Patrick Schmid, director of research with the Insurance Research Council, which is based in Malvern, Pa.
In 2009, about 15.7 percent of Ohio drivers were uninsured, compared to 13.8 percent of drivers nationwide, according to the Council’s most recent analysis of insurance claims. Only nine other states had a higher percentage of uninsured drivers than Ohio.
Increases in uninsured drivers typically corresponds with rising unemployment, Schmid said. Unemployed workers still need transportation, but faced with financial constraints, they sometimes decide to cut out insurance premiums, he said.
“We did a study with more recent data, and we found that for every 1 percent rise in the unemployment rate, there was a 0.33 percent rise in the percentage of uninsured motorists,” he said.
The correlation between the unemployment rate and share of uninsured drivers was even stronger before the recession, which led to people driving less and had other kinds of impact, he said.
Tough economic conditions means Ohioans have to make tough economic decisions.
“So many people these days have to make painful choices about which bills to pay and, sadly, with insurance prices going up, some people decide not to maintain their auto insurance,” said Mark Bamberger, an attorney and owner of the Mark Bamberger Co. in Tipp City.
Some residents decide to “roll the dice” and forgo coverage and hope they are not caught by authorities or involved in a crash, insurance industry officials said.
But uninsured drivers were in 48,091 of the 473,927 crashes that took place in Ohio last year, according to the Ohio Department of Public Safety. Uninsured drivers were at fault in about 76 percent of those crashes.
Amanda Austin, 28, of Dayton, in April was driving her 2007 Honda Fit on Salem Ave. when she was rear-ended by a male driver.
“The light turned green and the person behind us just gunned it and smacked right into us,” she said.
Austin said the driver produced an insurance card that was in a woman’s name and that was long expired. Austin said she called the police, but the driver was joined at the scene by a woman and man who all fled before officers arrived. Authorities identified the suspects, but they were unable to locate them.
Austin said the wreck caused about $3,000 in damage, and her insurance company paid to repair her car. But she was forced to pay between $250 to $300 as a deductible and she also had to deal with the inconvenience of losing her vehicle while it was in the shop.
Austin said her insurance company will repay her for the deductible if it ever recovers damages from the man responsible for the crash. But she said it looks unlikely that this will ever occur.
Legal experts said uninsured drivers usually lack money or assets that can be collected as a result of a judgment in a civil suit.
“You can go after them, but in my experience, if somebody doesn’t have insurance, and they aren’t working a steady job, what (assets) will you go after?” said Carlson, the Dayton attorney.
Drivers in Ohio can protect themselves by purchasing uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, which is optional and on average costs between $40 to $50 annually, said Mary Bonelli, spokeswoman with the Ohio Insurance Institute.
This type of coverage takes the place of the liability coverage the other driver did not have, and it pays for injuries to the insured driver and his or her passengers when the other driver did not have sufficient insurance to cover the damages, the state said.
Ohioans also can buy uninsured motorists property damage coverage, which protects against losses that result when a vehicle is damaged by an uninsured driver.
“The best offense is a good defense,” Bonelli said.
Uninsured drivers face license suspension or worse if they are pulled over by police.
“Driving is a privilege, not a right, and we all have a responsibility to obey the laws as related to licensing and operation of motor vehicles,” said Lt. Anne Ralston with the Ohio State Highway Patrol.