VICTIMS of automobile accidents as well as purchasers of car insurance have an important stake in a vote scheduled today in the Senate Commerce Committee. The committee will be considering an excellent, carefully drafted no-fault insurance bill that would provide minimum standards for state programs - to deliver swift, direct compensation to accident victims instead of fat fees for trial lawyers. The question is whether committee members will respond to the well-financed trial lawyers' lobby, or to the growing number of Americans who are demanding an end to the insurance mess.
In the past, some members of Congress have suggested that, instead of federal standards, insurance customers and accident victims should just wait and see if the states, one by one, adopt some no-fault program (and never mind how they relate to each other). But the measure before Congress would not "federalize" insurance systems at all; it would merely offer a framework of minimum standards under which each state could proceed to enact its own no-fault program. That is why more and more organizations such as the state level, are now adding their support to the federal legislation as a necessary, effective way to proceed.
At this point, the growing list of supporters includes a coalition of consumers, labor, medical and rehabilitation professionals, business associations, organizations of older people, insurance companies and groups concerned about the health of the auto industry, including the National Automobile Dealers Association, which has endorsed the measure as a strong benefit to auto dealers as well as their customers.
Many lawyers, too, support the no-fault bill, even though the trial lawyers' lobby has been extremely vocal in its opposition and generous in its contributions; for example, Commerce Committee member Don Riegle (D-Mich.), who may have the decisive vote, has received the largest single amount given to one senator: $10,000. In fact, only this week a group of 19 prominent lawyers has written to the Senate and House committees to endorse the bill and to note that a poll conducted by the Journal of the American bar Association found that only 4 percent of its members believe the issue should concern the legal profession. Signers of the letter include Dean Erwin N. Griswold, former U.S. solicitor general; John Barnum, former deputy secretary of transportation; and William Ruckelshaus, former deputy attorney general and administator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Above all, however, the enactment of the no-fault bill this year, after years of studies and restudies, is of utmost concern to the people who must buy insurance (and want coverage rather than red tape and delays) and to anyone - driver, passenger or pedestrian - who may some day be an accident victim. The committee should approve the measure today, so it can be put before the full Senate for a vote as soon as possible.