No-fault auto insurance - the insurance which worries less about who's to blame and more about paying claims - was touted as cheaper, fairer, more beneficial and less of an administrative hassle when Massachusetts introduced it in 1971.
Since then, 15 other states have made no-fault insurance mandatory for drivers and, according to a recent Department of Transportation study, this newer form of insurance has proven to be a plus over the standard tort liability - or fault - form.
But fewer states have adopted no-fault programs than some in Congress had hoped would - they had hoped for at least a majority. So yesterday, Sen. Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.) gavelled to order the first round in hearings on a bill which will do what states have failed to do on their own: make no-fault insurance a fact of life nation-wide.
For Magnuson, there was a sense of dejavu about the scene in Room 5110 of the Dirksen Building. The same cast of characters gathered to testify as were there in 1967 when the Senate Commerce Committee last held hearings on national auto insurance standards.
Only this time, the proponents had more members, including several major insurance companies which 10 years ago had opposed a federal no-fault program.
"No-fault is a more efficient, more equitable, more practical system than the liability system," said Steven Lesnik, a vice president of Kemper Insurance Companies which until recently had fought against a national no-fault plan.
Part of the reason for Kemper's turnaround, Lesnik said, were the results of a company poll of 2,000 licensed drivers which showed three out of every four American drivers believe a change in the auto insurance system in their state is needed.
Even in the states which already have a no-fault law - particularly New York, New Jersey and Florida - the desire for reform is strong the poll revealed. Lesnik said this should not be taken as an indication that no-fault is not working. In these states, he said, "compromise crippled the no-fault law" causing premium rates to rise.
No-fault programs were intended, in part, to hold insurance premiums to a minimum by getting accident victims to surrender their right to sue for all but serious injuries and in return were guaranteed compensation for injuries regardless of what driver was responsible.
In other testimony yesterday, Andrew Biemiller, legislative director of the AFL-CIO, blamed the shortcomings of current no-fault programs on loopholes and misuse.
"Unfortunately, it is the consumer that has had to pay the price in higher premiums while lawyers, doctors and yes, even opportunistic accident victims, have defrauded and abused these loophole laws," he said. The current laws, he added, were "designed not as consumers no-fault but rather as lawyers no-fault."
The legislation still faces stiff opposition from the national trial lawyers' association, some segments of the insurance industry and a number of congressmen who would like to see in the bill a provision which rewards drivers who avoid accidents and punishes those who cause them. The House, meantime, is considering a bill similar to Magnuson's and has taken testimony favoring no-fault from the consumer lobby and such leaders in the insurance industry as State farm Prudential, Nationwide and the American Insurance Association.