AS MORE AND MORE cars roll out of the slush and back into weekend traffic around the region, it may interest you -- or frighten you -- to know that only about half of this city's motorists carry insurance. City law requires only that drivers in most accidents prove that they have insurance or the ability to pay any property damage or personal injuries -- or they stand to lose their permits or their auto tags. Obviously, that punishment doesn't help the injured victim. District Council member Betty Ann Kane has introduced legislation thatwould, among numerous other constructive things, establish a no-fault compensation system covering every motor vehicle.
There's nothing new about this idea; Mrs. Kane points out that her proposal is modeled on a successful law enacted in Michigan six years ago. Basically, it would provide for swift compensation for all accident victims -- instead of fat fees to lawyers, late and inadequate payments and the red tape of excessive litigation. As so many people have learned the hard way, automobile insurance "coverage" is not that at all, since it doesn't really protect buyers properly. That is why coalitions of consumers, business associations, insurance companies, older people, farm groups and professional organizations support the nofault auto-insurance concept.
Over the years, these groups have worked for enactment of a carefully drafted measure to provide minimum standards for state programs, while leaving it to each state to enact its own system. But a heavily financed lobby against this bill, operated by the trial lawyers who make the big killings under lawsuit-insurance systems, has so far been able to kill the measure each time. That is all the more reason for the District and other jurisdictions to establish their own nofault systems, in anticipation of the day when Congress responds with national minimum standards.
Mrs. Kane says her bill also would mean lower insurance premiums. That may be, though no-fault's opponents are quick to cite states where premiums have gone up. What they don't say, of course, is that inflation has caused and will continue to cause increases in premiums -- with or without no-fault. The difference is the coverage you get, whether you're a motorist, a passenger or a pedestrian. Instead of lawyers pocketing thousands of dollars at a clip from the go to-court-or-settle system, the no-fault proposal would compensate victims more completely, more equitably and much faster. Already, Mayor Marion Barry has embraced the idea of mandatory auto liability insurance, as have several council members. After council hearings, members should see to it that the no-fault bill is enacted this year -- preferably before the summer increase in driving.