September 1, 2013

Uninsured drivers pose physical, fiscal hazards

Though Maine has a low percentage of people without insurance, hundreds of accidents each year testify to the dangers on the roads.

By MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING Morning Sentinel

When Mike Lyons was in a car accident in 2008, he knew right away that his shattered body would never recover fully. What he didn't realize was that his finances would be ravaged as well -- the driver who hit him was one of an estimated 42,000 in the state who don't carry vehicle insurance.

click image to enlarge

Police images from Mike Lyons' 2008 accident show the damage to his vehicle, left, and the uninsured motorist's Jeep. The accident was the start of a long medical journey for Lyons, who is still angry about the accident.

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

click image to enlarge

Mike Lyons holds a copy of an X-ray of his femur that was repaired after it was seriously injured in 2008.

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

UNINSURED ACCIDENTS A CONSTANT PROBLEM

The toll from Maine's uninsured drivers is measured by more than money. Accidents involving uninsured drivers can cause years of bills, red tape and complications for other accident victims.

Accidents in Maine involving uninsured drivers:

2010: 219

2011: 229

2012: 234

2013: 172 as of Aug. 29

Source: Maine State Police Traffic Division

Lyons, 60, of Vassalboro, who works in marketing for Bank of America, was driving north to work on U.S. Route 201 in Winslow on a Saturday morning when a woman driving in the opposite direction made a left turn in front of him.

Their cars collided.

The impact threw Lyons forward with such force that the metal pin holding his seat belt snapped. His head cracked the windshield and he had deep cuts to his ankle and hand.

His right knee, which had been braced against the dashboard, was smashed, and his femur broken in five places.

It took emergency responders more than an hour to get him out of the twisted wreckage. His wife, who rushed to the scene, quoted him in her journal.

"Please don't let me die," he said, over and over. "I don't want to die today."

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, which began with a 6 1/2-hour stretch on the operating table at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, the Lyonses were focused on his pain and the path to recovery.

However, in the crush of information surrounding Lyons' medical condition -- a world of vomiting, bowel obstructions, nose tubes, medical scans and a huge amount of pain -- there was one detail that would gain increasing importance.

THOUSANDS DRIVE UNINSURED

The driver who was at fault in the accident carried no vehicle insurance and had no assets, which meant that Lyons would suffer not only the medical consequences of the crash, but the financial ones as well.

The number of uninsured drivers on Maine's roads, and the risk that they carry with them, is huge.

Of Maine's 930,000 licensed drivers, about 42,000 don't have insurance -- about one for every 22 drivers in the state, according the Insurance Research Council, an independent nonprofit research organization supported by national insurance companies. It does not advocate about public policy or seek to influence legislation directly, according to its website.

The risk rises during Labor Day weekend, when 1.7 million New Englanders, about 12 percent of the region's population, travel 50 miles or more from home, according to AAA Northern New England.

In Maine, drivers are required to carry at least $50,000 in insurance coverage.

During traffic stops, police officers routinely ask for proof of insurance. Last year, 3,614 drivers in Maine were convicted of failing to provide proof they had coverage at the time they were stopped within the 20 days required, according to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Failure to provide proof of insurance carries a hefty fine -- frequently larger than the fine for violation the driver was stopped for -- and a license suspension.

The state also requires that drivers provide proof in order to register a vehicle.

Maine's rate of uninsured drivers is better than those of other states -- among the lowest in the nation -- but that's small comfort to the drivers who are injured each year in accidents with uninsured drivers -- about 225 a year, according to the Maine State Police.

LETTING IT LAPSE

Attorneys familiar with personal injury cases said people drive without insurance for a variety of reasons.

Some have no license and are therefore uninsurable. Others have let it lapse.

Jason Jabar, an attorney with the Waterville-based firm Jabar, Bettern, Ringer & LaLiberty, said economics often plays a role.

(Continued on page 2)

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