The figure, a conservative estimate according to some insurance industry trade groups, ranks Minnesota ahead of nearly 24 other states with its uninsured motorist rate of 10.8 percent, according to a Pennsylvania-based insurance group.
Oklahoma, where one in four drivers lack coverage, ranked the highest, according to 2012 claims data. Minnesota’s rate is slightly lower than the national average of 12.6 percent, but a legislative task force is mulling ways to better enforce a state law that requires drivers to carry auto insurance.
Part of the challenge is figuring out who is failing to get coverage, lawmakers and insurers say. Is it young or old drivers? Rural or urban motorists? Low-income residents or people who simply choose not to buy insurance? In 2006 a legislative report concluded that the biggest problem was affordability, giving rise to higher rates of uninsureds during economic recessions.
“There’s considerable data that [suggests] there is an economic factor” hindering people from buying coverage, said state Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, a member of the task force. “There are people who just can’t afford to insure their car … but then you also have people who are making a personal cost-benefit analysis and saying, ‘I’m just gonna gamble.’ ”
Minnesota motorists spend an average of $693 a year on car insurance, according to data compiled by the state’s Commerce Department. That’s below the national average of $791, but higher than the average rate paid in neighboring states. Residents in Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota spend on average between $525 and $546 annually on car insurance, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. The average rate in Wisconsin is $613.
No proof required
Critics say that Minnesota could do more to verify that drivers carry insurance. Unlike drivers in some states, Minnesotans are not required to prove they have auto insurance when applying for or renewing license tabs. They are required to provide proof when pulled over by law enforcement, are involved in an accident or when retrieving a vehicle from an impound lot.
That wasn’t always the case.
In 2003 the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Driver and Vehicle Services division, tried to expand enforcement, but its attempt to crack down on uninsured drivers quickly fell apart.
The state agency selected a sample of 2,000 Minnesotans to verify coverage. Those selected received mailed notices asking for the name of their carrier and a policy number, which the state then double-checked with insurance carriers. Those who failed to return the notices with proof of insurance had their drivers’ licenses suspended.
An astounding 40 percent of motorists never responded to the notices, risking suspension. The agency found that the high nonresponse rate was attributable in part to old or incorrect addresses. In other cases, information shared between the state and insurers did not match, according to the 2006 legislative report.
More than 4,600 Minnesotans had their licenses suspended, many mistakenly.
Among those was state Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, who had coverage and who had provided a notarized document from his insurance agent as proof when he got his mailed notice.
His driver’s license was suspended anyway.
“I wasn’t a happy camper,” Senjem recalled. He had to appear in person to have his license reinstated.
Hundreds of Minnesotans complained to elected officials. The verification program was dismantled, much to the chagrin of insurers who had spent millions of dollars developing the software to verify insurance coverage, said Mark Kulda, a spokesman for the Maple Grove-based Insurance Federation of Minnesota.
Many believe more robust enforcement of the state’s insurance requirement would help reduce the number of Minnesotans on the road without coverage. Kent said the task force is considering recommending increasing the penalties for those caught driving without insurance. Other potential solutions include requiring proof of insurance when state residents pick up tabs or rolling out technological tools such as license plate readers that could provide law enforcement real-time data. Instituting an online verification has also been discussed.
The trade group that tabulated the rate — the Insurance Research Council — found that in states with stricter enforcement of proof-of-insurance requirements, the percentage of uninsured drivers dips to single digits.
“The more checkpoints you have, the more enforcement works,” said Patrick Schmid, trade group research director.
But there’s only so much impact a crackdown may have, the 2006 legislative report concluded. Some motorists may continue having trouble paying for insurance, nullifying verification efforts.
Kulda said the state should also consider reforming its insurance system. Minnesota is one of 12 states with “no-fault” insurance.
The law requires insurance companies to pay up to $20,000 for medical expenses, regardless of who’s at fault in an accident.
About 40 states have a tort law system. In these states, the at-fault party pays for damages and if disputes arise, they are adjudicated. To curb its rate of uninsured motorists, Colorado rescinded its no-fault law more than a decade ago, switching to the more common tort law system.
“These changes were significant factors in lowering the price of insurance to Colorado residents and, therefore, lowering the rate of uninsured motorists,” Minnesota’s 2006 legislative report said.
The task force faces a Feb. 1 deadline to provide final recommendations to the Legislature.