Uninsured drivers decreasing — though not disappearing — in Minnesota

Whether it's good policy or good timing, Minnesota appears to be ridding the roads of uninsured drivers. The number of people charged with not carrying auto insurance has dropped by a third in the past five years, according to state court records...

2011 file / News Tribune

Whether it's good policy or good timing, Minnesota appears to be ridding the roads of uninsured drivers.

The number of people charged with not carrying auto insurance has dropped by a third in the past five years, according to state court records. In St. Louis County, no-insurance cases have dropped by 28 percent since 2013.

That could be due to a new law requiring drivers to show proof of insurance when they register or re-register vehicles. Before 2016, just a signature would suffice.

"It is one more screen that provides a little bit more of a hurdle and a check than just checking and signing your name," state Sen. Susan Kent said when introducing the measure three years ago.

Then again, it could just be lucky timing.


"When the economy is good, we see more people buying insurance - it is a direct factor in how many people buy insurance," said Mark Kulda, vice president of public affairs for the Insurance Federation of Minnesota. When jobs are scarce, he said, there are more people "who can't afford it, people who have to choose between insurance and food."

It is these drivers that make up the bulk of uninsured motorists, Kulda said. But if the vehicle registration checkpoint is helping get more people covered, it isn't always having a lasting impact.

"Some scofflaws buy it long enough to put information down, then get rid of it," Kulda said.

Then there other ways around the requirements. Minnesota's Division of Motor Services does not actually verify the insurance information on registration forms, a Department of Public Safety spokesman confirmed.

Which all means that uninsured drivers, though perhaps fewer in number, are still on the streets, and likely always will be - something an insurance task force acknowledged in a 2015 report on the issue: "Some people will always drive without insurance."


Knowns and unknowns


The state was facing a troubling trend by the time the Legislature read the task force's report. After years of decline, Minnesota's uninsured driver rate had crept up to 11.5 percent in 2015. The same year, more than 20,000 people were charged with driving without insurance.

Then the new law came, the job market improved, and the stats started to tumble.

In 2017 about 14,000 people were charged for driving without coverage. The number of no-proof-of-insurance charges also fell substantially.

That data would seem to indicate there are fewer uninsured drivers on the road, but there's no way to know for sure. The 11.5 percent uninsured rate is the most recent statistic available from the Insurance Research Council, and the state has yet to come up with its own tracking system, a goal the Motor Vehicle Insurance Coverage Verification Task Force identified.

"Ideally, Minnesota and other states would have current, reliable information about the uninsured population," the group wrote. "Unfortunately, such data is not available."

What is known about uninsured drivers is that they are more likely to be poor.

"I've handled a fair amount of cases where there's a reason people didn't pay for insurance - they don't have any assets," said Stephanie Balmer, a partner at the law firm Falsani, Balmer, Peterson & Quinn. "If you can barely pay rent or groceries - you can get away with it for a long time."

In Duluth, about 21 percent of the population lives below the poverty line - double the state average, according to Census figures. That could mean many more people are driving around Duluth uninsured compared to other cities.


"It's an odds game anytime that you're driving," said Tony Rubin, a personal injury lawyer with SiebenCarey.


Sharing the burden

Minnesota is one of a handful of states with no-fault insurance laws - your own auto insurance policy will cover your injuries no matter who caused a crash. The state also requires uninsured and underinsured driver policies, which kick in when basic coverage is used up.

With minimum coverage requirements, that's some decent peace of mind for minor crashes even if the other driver is uninsured. But serious accidents with uninsured drivers that involve hospitalization, time off of work and extensive car repairs will need more than the minimums, lawyers and insurance agents told the News Tribune.

"There are ways to insure ourselves against these scenarios," Rubin said. "Put yourself in the best position to be the driver you want everyone else to be - and increase your coverage."

So despite laws that are meant to spread financial risk among all drivers, the burden often falls on responsible drivers to protect themselves.


"If you break your back and become paralyzed, those numbers on your policy could be life-changing for you," said Bonnie Perkins, a Farmers Insurance agent in Duluth.

Many run-ins with uninsured drivers are probably hit-and-runs, Perkins said - they're often the ones who don't leave a note.

"If you have full coverage on your vehicle you're OK," she said. "If you have liability only you're out of luck."

Susan Coen, a State Farm agent, said that despite the state's crackdown on registering or taking possession of a car without insurance, people driving without insurance is a problem has not been solved.

"It is and will continue to be a problem for people's budgets," she said.

If poverty is the underlying issue keeping some drivers uninsured, then keeping coverage affordable should be a priority, said Kulda with the Insurance Federation. While his group has a number of reforms in mind - some they've been pushing for years - there's one thing he said that would bring premiums in line with Minnesota's neighboring states.

"If you want to drop our uninsured motorist rate, it means reforming or dropping no-fault," Kulda said. "A lot more people would not only be able to buy insurance but buy higher limits."

Less-drastic measures could mean helping people who have not kept consistent coverage - and thus have to pay higher premiums - find a way to qualify for affordable plans.


"Many things can affect your ability to get decent insurance down the road," Balmer said. "It would be nice if there was a program where people could enter a clinic, just like in bankruptcy, to straighten some of these things out."


Brooks Johnson was an enterprise/investigative reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune from 2016 to 2019.
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