A D.C. City Council committee, breaking a long impasse over automobile insurance laws in the city, approved legislation yesterday that would require the owners of uninsured vehicles, which make up about 40 percent of the 100,000 automobiles registered in the city, to pay a penalty of $250 a year.
But the committee stopped short of recommending compulsory auto insurance in Washington, and it gave no consideration to a no-fault insurance proposal once supported by a majority of the council's 13 members but abandoned in the face of heavy lobbying by trial lawyers fearful of losing business.
Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, who did not attend the committee meeting, said after the vote he would try to replace the committee bill with a no-fault measure that he introduced last summer with the support of nine council members.
"I owe that to the public and consumers," Dixon said.
Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), a lawyer who sponsored the legislation passed yesterday and chairman of the council's Committee on Public Service and Consumer Affairs, which passed the measure, hailed the committee action as the first step toward resolving a longstanding, thorny issue.
"I think we will finally have something we can live with, cope with . . . a compromise," Rolark said before the vote. The committee "at least put the District of Columbia on track in dealing with uninsured motorists," she said.
The measure was approved unanimously by the five-member committee, but several committee members indicated that their support for the measure was limited.
Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) said she only voted for the bill because groups that have lobbied either for it or against it said it was time the bill came before the full City Council.
Hilda Mason (Statehood At-Large) voted for the bill but "reserved my right to make amendments." Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) said she preferred a no-fault bill and William R. Spaulding said he thought the full council should have a chance to vote.
The Rolark bill was strongly supported by a local group of trial lawyers who lobbied heavily against the no-fault bill, contending it would eliminate most court cases involving automobile wrecks that result in personal injury.
In so doing, the attorneys argued, the no-fault bill would unfairly take away the right to sue for damages and pain and suffering of their clients. No-fault supporters countered that the proposal would still permit law suits in many instances, including those involving accidents that led to death or permanent injuries.
Rolark, who has sided with the trial lawyers, called her bill "a compromise" between the proponents of no-fault insurance plans and mandatory liability insurance, which she said would be too expensive for many car owners in the city.
Rolark said her proposal, which would allow motorists paying the $250 penalty in two installments during the course of a year, was modeled after a Virginia statute where officials say about 5 percent of the drivers are uninsured.
In passing the bill, she said, the committee "is just hoping our rate of uninsured drivers will mirror the Virginia" law.
The Rolark bill was reluctantly supported by insurance executives from GEICO, which writes 31 percent of the automobile policies in the District. GEICO had originally endorsed Dixon's no-fault bill, but gave up hope for it after the trial lawyers lobbied heavily against it.
The GEICO officials said then they would prefer most any bill in order to get some type of insurance coverage law written in the District and, after a meeting with Rolark and representatives of the trial lawyers, agreed to a provision requiring that all policies written by all companies in the District include uninsured motorist coverage.
That provision is expected to add a maximum of about $20 a year to the average insurance premiums paid in the city.
Consumer groups have said the Rolark bill will be administratively difficult to enforce and would not significantly reduce the number of uninsured drivers on District streets.
The Council is expected to schedule floor action on the bill in about two weeks.