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Driving substitute vehicles

On most days, the world is straightforward. We get out of bed, eat breakfast, gently roll the vehicle out on to the road and start driving. But every now and again, the routine is disrupted and then the small print in your insurance policy takes on a new significance. Now you will really find out what you bought. As an example, let's travel over to North Carolina where a family owned several vehicles. The husband usually drove a Toyota Sequoia but, on the fateful morning, his wife told him there was a possible problem with the brakes and she was taking it in for service. He therefore set off for work in the Mitsubishi Montero. He was hit from the rear and the vehicle rolled over, landing him in hospital and six months of rehabilitation before he was able to return to work. The driver at fault only carried the minimum liability coverage of $30,000 and had no assets - he was not worth suing. But the policy on the Sequoia issued by the Companion Property and Casualty Insurance Company, carried losses of up to $1 million under an uninsured and medical payments policy. There was a provision giving coverage if the insured was driving a "temporary substitute auto". On the face of it, this seems to cover driving the Montero. His usual vehicle needed repairs. The Montero was a temporary substitute. But, as is always the case, the insurer refused to pay.

For something that looks obvious, this has generated several years of litigation. Starting in January 2005, we have been through three levels of court, ending in the North Carolina Supreme Court which did not reach a decision, but sent it back down to the original court for a full hearing on the facts. So, after almost six years, we are back where we started and no further forward. This is yet another of those horror stories showing that attorneys and the courts they work in can tie a case up in knots for years without ever reaching a final decision. What's interesting about this particular story is the extent to which an innocent buyer of insurance can end up the victim in the system. Here's a man who owns two vehicles and, in good faith, he buys a policy that not only says it covers him when driving the nominated vehicle, but also when he's driving a temporary substitute. Anyone looking at such a policy would imagine he was covered against all reasonable situations in which a claim might arise. Indeed, our policy holder has, from the start, alleged the insurer made the sale and subsequently acted in an unfair and deceptive way.

This leads us to two conclusions. Everyone should take the time to read all the terms of the policies offered, whether as full-price or cheap car insurance and, if there is any doubt in your mind as to the extent of the coverage, always ask specific questions. Secondly, if what you were told before you buy is later denied, get a good attorney who is prepared to fight for your rights. Get cheap car insurance and make the insurer pay!

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Social host liability

Well, it's that time of year again. We've got Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November and we've no sooner recovered from that when Christmas is upon us. And for those still alive, there's a further opportunity to celebrate come New Year. Indeed, statistics show we drink more over the next few weeks than at any other time during during the year. Sure, there are cookouts when a few friends come around and drink some beer, but this is the season of good cheer and, often, excessive alcohol consumption. So welcome to the developing world of social host liability. Let's suppose it's obvious one of your party guests is seriously intoxicated, but you continue to supply more alcohol and fail to stop this person attempting to drive home. Once on the highway, this driver is involved in a traffic accident and seriously injures other people.

Under the law of negligence, you are liable if it's foreseeable a drunk may drive and injure a third party. This area of liability started off under the Dram Shop Acts that made bartenders liable if drunken customers injured people on the way home. Courts have extended the liability from commercial sellers to social hosts who give the alcohol away. Either way, the driver is allowed to leave and presents a high risk to the general public. Let's start off in New Jersey where a social host served a guest thirteen drinks in a hour and allowed him to drive away. Minutes later, he was involved in a head-on collision. The host was held liable. In 1986, the New Jersey lawmakers reduced the liability a little. If the blood-alcohol content is below .15, the host is exempted from liability.

The experience in New Jersey represents a general pattern of the courts trying to extend the usual principles of negligence to social hosts and the lawmakers fighting back, as in California, Iowa, Minnesota and Oregon. But the common law continues to represent a general threat to social hosts who knowingly allow their guests to continue drinking and then drive away.

For these purposes, we need to reinforce the message that this liability is not covered under either your full-price or cheap car insurance policies. In fact, you need to look very carefully at your homeowners policy to see whether the third party liability provisions cover this type of situation. The message therefore could not be clearer. Whether this is "festive season" drinking or just a general party, you need to set limits on the amount of alcohol you serve to your guests. If you can see someone is getting drunk, you should both stop serving more and take away the keys. Allow time for people to sober up before you let them leave. This may mean giving them food or offering free-flow black coffee. If there's the slightest doubt in your mind, you should call a cab to take them home. Not only may you be saving lives, you may also be avoiding a big legal claim against you and your family. Remember, if your guest only has cheap car insurance, you will be in the firing line when the claim is big. Protect yourself

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install a television in your car

You might think this is another of these articles rambling on about distractions while driving. Yes, there are manufacturers who build in technology to watch TV or play DVDs. Most people in the back seat might think this a good idea but, from the driver's point of view, driving gets more exciting when you have to turn around to catch the replays. But, as it happens, this is about something completely different. Do you remember the reality show called Motormouth? This was one of these "play-a-trick-on-your-best-friend" shows in which unsuspecting drivers would be encouraged to sing while navigating local streets. The results would then be viewed by a panel consisting of the show's producer and friends. A winner was then declared and embarrassed by being shown up as the person least likely to succeed on American Idol (even with Jennifer Lopez as a judge who can't say no). Well, here comes a real-world version designed to impact driving standards on your local streets.
One of the most unnerving of all moments for a parent is when their teen gets a driving license and then demands the keys to the family car. The statistics all suddenly leap into focus. Tens of thousands of teens are killed and injured on our roads every month. When you hand over the keys, you are praying your teen will not end up a statistic on a local hospital gurney. Yet, there has been a quiet experiment going on in Wisconsin since 2007. It's called the Teen Safe Driver Program, run by American Family, a local insurer. The company offers parents a discount on the policy for their teen if the company is allowed to instal cameras inside each vehicle.
The way the package works is simple. One camera watches the road. The other captures the expression and body language of the driver. This is a realtime stream. If there's a dramatic event, brakes are suddenly slammed on or there's a violent swerve, the package saves the images for the twenty second before the event and notifies the parents. Everyone can then view what happened before, during and immediately after the event. Yes, there's a remote website where authorized people can access the recordings and see exactly what the driver was doing. Mostly, it's just the parents who see how badly their teens are driving. But obviously, the insurance company, police and other authority figures also have a interest in a factual record of what happened to decide who was at fault in any accident.
For some reason, dangerous driving events have been reduced by 70% since this system was introduced. As a result, parents have less fear of those auto insurance quotes. With improved driving records and fewer tickets, their teens have been earning lower premiums. In a parallel universe, Ford has just added a parental option to limit the vehicle's speed. If vehicles really are made safer, auto insurance quotes for teens will slowly fall to more reasonable levels. Something parents across America will welcome.
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Auto insurance and pay-as-you-drive insurance

One of the more interesting features of insurance is the degree of trust the insurer shows in what you say. Unless you are asking cover for something expensive and unusual, no insurer is going to ask to see whatever it is. You are allowed to add the vehicle or top-of-the-range electronic gizmo to the policy without question. But, if it later turns out you were less than honest, the insurer is allowed to cancel the policy and leave you without any cover. So the insurer is always protected and you pay the price of facing any claims without a policy to pay. Yet, while this has been standard in the insurance industry as a whole, there's been a reluctance to trust drivers to report their mileage honestly. Younger people claiming unusually low annual mileage have been greeted with skepticism. To qualify for a discount, people have been forced to drive to the local office of the insurer to have someone verify the odometer reading once a month. This has been inconvenient and not so many people have taken up the discount offer.
With new technology, all this is changing and insurers are now moving into the pay-as-you-drive market with more enthusiasm. In part, there are also environmental reasons for this change. No matter what you think of the climate change debate, there's no doubt more cities are being affected by smog. So whether this is big picture or the number of people lining up with asthma attacks at the local emergency rooms, there's a move to encourage people to drive less. Accompanied by improvements in the mile-per-gallon performance of new cars and better emission controls, there's now hope the air will stay breathable for longer. The pay-as-you-drive option gives people a direct incentive to drive less. Fewer miles driven means fewer accidents. If the full technological capabilities are introduced, it will also be possible to monitor whether drivers keep to the speed limits. Any vehicle reported stolen can automatically be tracked and recovered.
The first real signs of activity are coming in California. State Farm Mutual and the Auto Club of Southern California are introducing new policies in February 2011. Drivers will be given the choice of independent verification of their odometer readings or fitting a data transmission device. State Farm is estimating that people driving less than 2,000 a year will see their premiums fall by 45%. Using this as a base, State Farm is aiming to sign up at least a quarter of their current policy holders. Everyone who drives modest distances will save with rates set in 500 mile steps. Auto Club has four steps of 2,500 up to 10,000 miles and then the premium rises in 5,000 mile steps. At present, the Californian Insurance Commissioner is protecting drivers' privacy, so no general data will be collected by insurers.
So, if you live in California, your auto insurance quotes should include this option come February 2011. While this is not a revolution, it's certainly a change for the good, protecting the environment and encouraging better driving. Auto insurance is going green.
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Should there be federal regulation?

The Tea Party seems to be kicking up the dust, readying for a real fight over the notion of big government. This means we should talk about what government should be for. The Right seems to think there's no need for any central government except to run the defense of the country and manage the economy. The Left says there's always a need for government to protect the interests of the people, whether through education, healthcare, a transport system, and so on. It comes down to money. One side sees no need for central taxation, arguing everything can be done by individual states. The other says there should be national standards to ensure no one is penalized because of the accident of where they live. In a sense, this is an academic argument that can be allowed to pass us by when the economy is doing well. But with unemployment high and the deficit mounting, the questions have more relevance.
To explain the point with an example, let's go down to Texas where the race for the governorship is hotting up. One of the issues that's really firing up the local voters is the premiums charged for insuring their homes. It seems the average rates are about $625 a year higher in Texas than in any other state in the nation. Who would have thought it costs so much more to have a home in Texas. The Republicans admit the Texan rates are among the highest in the country (it's more statistics and damned statistics in play here), but say there's no need for any regulations to protect consumers. The current GOP governor is a free market capitalist. He believes in self-regulation and the power of the consumer. If you do not like a product, you do not have to buy it. There's always someone with a better deal and, if consumers act rationally, they will all move their business and put the bad companies out of business.
In fairness, there's a rule which requires insurers to notify the local Commissioner for Insurance if they are going to increase premiums and he can intervene if there's any evidence the rates are out of line. So, the Commissioner has no power to prevent a company from increasing its rates. And, since State Farm has been locked in litigation over the last time the Commissioner did intervene, the last eight years has seen no activity from the Commissioner to protect consumers. By coincidence, rates have risen by an average of about 50% during this period.
So, to sum up, if you live in Texas you pay more than anyone else for your home insurance and the premium rates can be increased without limit whenever the insurers decide they want more money from you. And the Republican governor thinks the system is working well? You can tell he's rich and can pay his home insurance without flinching. It's rare to find such a clear-cut issue so high on the electoral agenda. It will be interesting to see how the vote turns out and, if the incumbent wins, will this actually be a vote in favor of paying the maximum to insure your home?
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