DeKALB – About one in six drivers in Illinois are uninsured, and Tracy Leonard knows what can happen when encountering one.
Leonard’s 18-year-old daughter, Teale Noble, ended up in serious condition at a hospital after a Feb. 27 car crash that also killed an 11-year-old Sycamore boy. Police said the crash was caused by an uninsured driver who rear-ended the vehicle in which Noble was a passenger.
Now, Leonard must deal with unknown costs as her daughter, recently released from the hospital, deals with serious head injuries and trauma.
“I’m going to make something happen,” she said of pushing for serious ramifications against uninsured motorists. “If we all get out scot-free, no one would pay insurance.”
Uninsured motorists are a growing problem around the country and in Illinois. The Insurance Research Council estimates one in seven American drivers are uninsured, including almost 15 percent of Illinois’ 8 million motorists – more than 1 million.
Locally, the problem is growing. The DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office issued 704 citations for driving without insurance in 2012, while DeKalb police wrote 1,138 tickets. Uninsured motorists accounted for 27.5 percent of all citations from the Sycamore Police Department in 2012.
The Sycamore and DeKalb police departments are on pace to exceed last year’s numbers with 78 and 203 tickets for no insurance being issued to date, respectively.
Sycamore Police Lt. Darrell Johnson said part of the problem is simple economics. As people look for ways to save money in a struggling economy, many believe they can get away without insurance.
Although police cannot proactively determine who is uninsured, Johnson said it is nearly impossible to get away with the offense after a driver is pulled over for a primary violation such as speeding or failure to stop.
“No one ever expects to get pulled over or expects to get in an accident,” Johnson said. “They would rather take the risk of driving without insurance than have to pay for it.”
Sycamore State Farm agent Jeff Keicher said there are protections for those who are involved in a crash with uninsured motorists,.
He said insured drivers unfortunately have to pay their deductible even when the uninsured is at fault, but a process known as subrogation could recover those costs. He said the insurance company will spend years, if needed, to recover the cost of the deductible payment from the uninsured motorist, even if it means collecting $25 a month.
The insured driver then would be reimbursed.
Keicher said the state also requires all insured drivers to have an uninsured motorist clause in their policy, which can save the insured tens of thousands of dollars if not more in case of an injury.
“People who experience crashes with uninsured drivers will forever be believers in the uninsured protection,” Keicher said. “But at the end of the day, the at-fault person should always be paying.”
Determining who is uninsured is not an easy task.
DeKalb police Cmdr. John Petragallo said some drivers attempt to thwart officers by producing false documentation that resembles legal insurance cards. In some cases, he said, drivers will start a policy and then cancel it once they receive their card.
He said officers are told to call the insurance company if they have any doubt or suspicions that the driver is providing false information. DeKalb officers issued 11 tickets for false insurance in 2012 and have written two in the first two months of 2013. False insurance is an arrestable offense.
“It has been a continual issue,” Petragallo said. “I would say stricter penalties would help the enforcement of the law.”
Driving without insurance can result in a fine between $500 and $1,000 and a temporary license suspension. If an injury occurs, it can then be charged as a Class A misdemeanor, which carries potential $2,500 fines and less than a year in jail.
State Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Belvidere, is hoping to clamp down on uninsured motorists, proposing legislation that would allow officers to tow and impound an offender’s vehicle. The bill passed out of committee, and Sosnowski sees little to no opposition for full passage.
“One of the biggest things we want to do is protect the innocent,” he said. “Many times if there is an accident, the uninsured are more likely to flee from the scene. We want to protect those victims from being caught up in insurance hassles.”
Some states enforce ‘no pay, no play’ laws, which prohibit uninsured drivers from receiving compensation and awards in lawsuits, even if a crash was not their fault.
DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott said he has a hard time envisioning any law that would deter those who drive without insurance. He said people either do not have the money or have so many traffic violations that getting insured is difficult.
“I think it is a problem that is growing all the time,” he said. “I think people who deliberately don’t pay for the insurance are going to continue to go without it.”
Uninsured Motorist Statistics
Illinois: Roughly one out of every six drivers is uninsured, according to the Insurance Research Council.
DeKalb County: The DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office issued 704 citations for driving without insurance in 2012.
DeKalb: DeKalb police wrote 1,138 tickets for driving without insurance and 11 citations for false insurance in 2012. Police have issued 203 tickets to uninsured motorists this year.
Sycamore: Sycamore police have issued 78 citations for driving without insurance this year. The offense accounted for 27.5 percent of all citations in 2012.