After years of wrangling over automobile insurance laws in Washington -- and after hours of procedural combat Tuesday night -- the D.C. Council gave preliminary approval to a compulsory insurance measure that the city's leading insurer says is the most costly alternative for Washington motorists.
"Of all the options that were presented to the council, they picked the worst," said August Alegi, vice president and chief lobbyist of Government Employees Insurance Co. (Geico), which writes more than 30 percent of the auto policies in the District of Columbia.
The council, after narrowly defeating a bill to establish no-fault auto insurance, approved on first reading a measure that would require all owners to buy liability insurance before their vehicles are registered in Washington. Currently, about half the city's motorists have no auto insurance at all, city officials estimate.
Alegi said his company would have to charge rates from about $190, for drivers with good records, up to more than $1,000 for bad drivers if the bill approved Tuesday night eventually becomes law. He said insurance under the no-fault measure, for which his company lobbied, could have been offered for about $73 to about $500.
The compulsory liability insurance bill was passed 10 to 2, with one abstention, after the council voted 7 to 6 against the no-fault measure. Under the no-fault bill, offered by Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, motorists would have been required to carry personal injury insurance that would pay most claims without determining who was at fault in an accident.
Council members agreed yesterday that the decision to adopt compulsory insurance was at least partially due to the parliamentary maneuvering and sharp personal exchanges that characterized Tuesday night's raucous session. The controversial issue will come before the council again in two weeks, and some members said they thought the measure would be amended.
Before the meeting, the council had been expected to choose between Dixon's no-fault proposal and another measure offered by Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8). Rolark's measure would not have compelled motorists to buy insurance. Instead, anyone who did not purchase insurance would have had to pay a penalty fee of $250 per vehicle each time it was registered for new tags.
Rolark, chairman of the consumer affairs and public service committee, had blocked Dixon's bill for more than a year while drafting her measure, which was supported primarily by the city's trial lawyers.
The lawyers anticipated suffering a loss of business if no-fault were approved, because it largely would have eliminated litigation to determine blame in auto accidents. They lobbied heavily against Dixon's bill.
A report by Rolark's committee had rejected compulsory liability insurance, arguing that it was too expensive for many city residents to buy.
But on Tuesday night, Rolark changed her earlier position and supported an amendment to her measure -- offered by John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) -- which made her insurance package compulsory. She said yesterday that too many "questions were raised" about the penalty fee and that she decided it was too confusing.
Both Rolark and Wilson rejected Geico's warnings about costs, saying no one will really know the rates until they are set by competition.
"The cost of the program has never been the question," said Wilson, a longtime opponent of no-fault. He said the majority of Washington residents wanted compulsory insurance.
"I think everybody who operates a vehicle in the District of Columbia should have insurance. Just like you gotta buy gas, it's the cost of operating a car," Wilson said.
Tuesday's action, which would continue litigation over accidents, represented a victory for the trial lawyers -- a fact acknowledged yesterday by Robert Cadeaux, a chief spokesman for the lawyers on the no-fault issue.
Dixon, who as chairman has more power, succeeded in getting no-fault considered ahead of the compulsory bill. Several council members, among them supporters of Dixon's no-fault position, said they thought some of his actions were arbitrary and only heightened the political tension in the chamber.
"We lost because Dixon doesn't know how to run a meeting," said one of Dixon's supporters.
Yesterday Dixon defended his role, saying he followed council rules.
Voting against Dixon's no-fault bill Tuesday night were Rolark, Wilson, William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5), Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), Jerry A. Moore Jr. (R-At large), John Ray (D-At large) and Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6). Voting for it were Dixon, David A. Clarke (D-Ward 12), Betty Ann Kane (D-At large), Hilda Mason (Statehood-At large), H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) and Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3).