Special Report: Alabama's Uninsured

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Up until June 2010, standing up was never a challenge for Jeff Richards. That changed in a split second on a road in East Alabama.

"I don't remember any feeling. I was there and alive, but I was still kinda wondering exactly what happened," says Richards.

He was driving along Highway 431 in Eufaula when a drunk driver--estimated to be going 100 mph--smashed into Richards' vehicle from behind. The impact paralyzed him from the neck down. The doctors had no good news.

"I had a 5% chance of ever walking again," says Richards.

If the injury alone wasn't enough, Richards and his wife, Sandra, found out that drunk driver didn't have car insurance and their medical bills were running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Totally irresponsible. He had no insurance for the insurance companies to give us. He didn't have anything to pay back."

Luckily, the Richards had coverage to protect them against the uninsured.

But as Sandra puts it, "there's nothing fair about it."

One in four drivers in Alabama break the law just by cruising down the highway--all because they don't have liability insurance.

Despite a law requiring vehicle owners to have that liability coverage, thousands of Alabamians don't.

Insurance agent Ronnie Shaw says accidents like the one Richards was in are all too common and insured motorists wind up footing the bill for the uninsured.

"If somebody hits you and they don't have insurance, it's going to have to be filed under yours. You literally are at the mercy of whatever you have under yours [insurance policy]."

Shaw says uninsured motorist coverage costs start at about $30 every six months per vehicle...all because "there's not a system in place as there are in a lot of states that will hold drivers accountable," says Shaw.

"We are doing as much as we can under the law we have on the books at this time," says Brenda Coone, Director of the Alabama Department of Revenue's Motor Vehicle Division.

She's responsible for enforcing Alabama's Liability Insurance laws and does it by sending about 200,000 random questionnaires out a year.

"We ask for information like your insurance company's name, identifying info about the insurance company, the policy number. We use that information to contact your insurance company to verify coverage," says Coone.

If a driver can't provide proof, their car registration could be suspended. But Shaw says one big loophole allows folks to try to cheat the system.

"They could take a policy out today, get the insurance card in the mail a few days later, cancel the policy and that policy effective period runs 6 months."

It's a reality Coone is well aware of and admits it's hard to prevent.

"We know that more can be done. The current law is quite restrictive."

The Richards did hire an attorney to make sure they are fairly compensated, but even that doesn't make Jeff's injury any easier--even though nowadays money is the least of his worries.

"It's tough to sit here in this chair and not be able to get up and go do things.  That's the goal--to get up and walk and get my hands working again."

Alabama State Troopers say if an uninsured driver is stopped, that person could get a ticket if he or she can't provide proof of insurance. But they're not legally liable to pay anything in a collision unless legal action is taken against them and a judge decides they should pay for damages.

There is a bill in the Alabama legislature that would give law enforcement officials real-time electronic verification systems in their vehicles to determine if someone is insured or not.

Insurance agents say since that type of program would hold drivers more accountable, policy rates would most likely decrease.

The bill has passed the state senate and only needs one more vote in the Alabama state house before heading to Governor Bentley's desk.

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