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May 22, 2007

By The Miami Herald

May 23--Legislators intent on sunsetting Florida's no-fault auto-insurance law got more than they bargained for: They eliminated mandated auto insurance altogether.

The unintended consequences could raise auto-insurance costs -- not necessarily lower costs, as some legislators suggested. Floridians also will pay the price when emergency rooms see a spike in accident victims who lack health coverage of any kind.

This isn't good policy, nor is it fair to drivers who responsibly insure their vehicles. Lawmakers should use the special session to reverse the unintended effects of the law's expiration. State law requires two types of auto coverage:

--Personal injury protection, or PIP, which pays most medical expenses and lost wages. A minimum of $10,000 coverage is required.

--Property damage liability, with $10,000 minimum coverage. This covers damages to another person's car or other property.

Coverage not required

In the absence of legislative action, as of Oct. 1, Florida drivers no longer will have to buy auto insurance to register their cars. This is an invitation to drop coverage. Meanwhile, drivers who keep their auto insurance will see their rates rise, especially for uninsured-motorist coverage.

Hospitals with trauma centers also can expect to see their unpaid-care costs rise without mandated auto-injury coverage. Jackson Memorial Hospital and the South Broward Hospital District, for example, project more than $22 million in unfunded costs from an increase in auto-accident patients who have no medical insurance.

Our high rates

There is a good reason that almost every state requires some form of auto insurance. The more people that are insured, the more risk is spread. The more uninsured drivers, the more that costs are shifted to those who pay for their coverage. South Florida's huge uninsured driver population is a key reason our rates are among the nation's highest.

We understand that the special legislative session in June is intended to focus on property-tax relief. It isn't productive for legislators to divert attention by addressing a host of other issues that can wait until next year's regular session. The looming auto-insurance fiasco, however, shouldn't be put off until next year. By then, drivers will have canceled coverage and Florida's auto-insurance market will have worsened.

The Legislature erred by not extending the current law or replacing it. Florida shouldn't encourage uninsured driving. There is a relatively easy fix that shouldn't bog down the special session in debate. Lawmakers should extend the current no-fault law for one year, then address it in the 2008 regular session. Florida's responsible drivers will be grateful.


Copyright (c) 2007, The Miami Herald

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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