My husband shuddered slightly as he stood silently listening, the telephone receiver pressed to an ear.
I came close, held him steady and tried to discern what was going on. A stranger was on the line, a woman calling from the shoulder of the state highway a few miles away. She was with our then 18-year-old son. There’d been an accident.
The call all parents dread came on a Saturday afternoon late last summer. Thankfully, our son survived. In the meantime, we’ve gotten an education in the high cost of trauma care and the state government’s failure to enforce automobile liability insurance law.
That day, our son – our sole boy – had been expected soon for supper. He was driving the little blue pickup he prized as his own, headed home from his part-time job in Elbe, about 20 miles from here.
The woman calling was a mother, too, and after watching my son crawl out of his wreck, she sat with him, called 911, then called us. An ambulance was on its way. She handed my son her cell.
It wasn’t his fault, he said to his dad, his voice shaky and oddly muffled. The driver of another pickup had not looked in my son’s direction before driving onto the highway from a side road. Our son had tried to stop, but his pickup slammed into the other, then careened into a third, oncoming truck.
Paramedics took our boy to a Tacoma trauma center. When nurses ushered us into his room, he was still in a neck brace and on a backboard. Dried blood streaked his face, neck and shoulder. He seemed stunned. The CT scans showed no concussion, but the accident had broken his nose. That didn’t require emergency treatment; so just a couple of hours after he got to the hospital, we drove our son home.
Before we left Tacoma, a State Patrol trooper spoke with him. She said she’d ticketed the man who had pulled out in front of my son’s truck. In her judgment, the other guy had failed to yield the right of way. And despite state law, the owner of that truck carried no liability insurance.
Our son’s nose healed on its own. The bruises faded.
I knew our insurance policy would cover expenses involving uninsured motorists, but it wasn’t until bills arrived that I realized how important that was. A day or two after the accident, I had told our insurance claims agent that the emergency room visit alone might cost a couple of thousand dollars. She kept mum. Clearly, she knew way more about it than she let on.
The hospital bill alone amounted to more than $27,000, which our insurance company promises to pay. We’ve always known medical care costs are out of whack. The trauma center fee for a couple of hours – scans and observation only – makes that obvious.
And then there’s the issue of uninsured motorists. The man who pulled out in front of my son faced a fine. I’m betting the insurance people will try to recoup the money he’s cost them.
But he’s far from the only scofflaw out there. In 2011, the insurance industry released a study that found about 16 percent of Washington motorists ignore the liability insurance requirement. Obviously, they’re hurting the rest of us who must pay higher premiums as a result.
In Washington, we’re on the honor system. Yes, you’re supposed to keep a document attesting to liability insurance coverage – or a similar bond – in your glove box. But nobody checks unless police pull you over.
Clearly, enforcement is lacking. For years, lawmakers in Olympia have proposed solutions, but little has changed. Meanwhile, some other states have taken action. About half require proof of insurance when vehicles are registered. Some do random sampling of motorist compliance. Others insist that insurance companies routinely share information on the vehicles they insure.
Frankly, I haven’t done the research to evaluate whether these practices force motorists to comply with the law. But it’s about time for state officials to do so. Then lawmakers should adopt measures that ensure that all drivers take responsibility for the cost of accidents.Susan Gordon, one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page, lives on about five acres north of Eatonville with her husband and son. She’s a former News Tribune staff writer. Reach her at SJGordonCommunications@gmail.com.