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Everyone helps pick up DUI tab

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Even if you've never had a run-in with a drunken driver, you pay part of the costs of alcohol-related accidents on Utah's highways.

If you insure a vehicle, part of every premium payment helps cover the extraordinary expenses generated by drunken drivers.

"Good drivers finance those who aren't," said Eric Olsen, a public affairs specialist with State Farm Insurance Co. Insurance plans are based on actuarial calculations that spread costs over the insured pool.

When neither driver in an alcohol-related crash has vehicle insurance, social institutions supported by you as a taxpayer may pick up the bills.

In Utah, alcohol-related crashes account for an estimated 12 percent of

the insurance payments made following accidents, according to figures compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NHTSA figures estimate that reducing alcohol-related crashes by 10 percent in Utah would save $10 million in claims payments and adjustment expenses.

The Insurance Information Institute notes that insurance providers have increasingly joined the battle against drunken driving in an effort to curb the related costs. They sponsor seasonal anti-drunken-driving campaigns, distribute guidelines for those who serve alcohol and promote anti-drinking events for teenagers, such as the Prom Promise campaign that was held in 22 states last year. Farmers Insurance provides an education course that involves agents, parents and teenagers in a discussion of the hazards of drinking and driving.

A drunken driver is 16 times more likely to be involved in an accident than other drivers, said Ted Miller of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. And the crashes caused by drunken drivers are more likely to cause death, injury and property damage.

Trying to make statistical sense of the data is complicated by several factors.

There are 1.3 million licensed drivers in Utah and approximately 14,000 arrests for drunken driving annually. If extrapolations were straightforward, that would indicate that about 1.1 percent of the licensed drivers cause accidents that generate 12 percent of the insurance payments. But not everyone arrested for DUI causes an accident, and the tally of drunken drivers also includes some who are driving without insurance coverage. That makes the disparity even greater.

Current Utah data do not specify how many drunken drivers do not have vehicle insurance at the time of an accident. But it is apparent that when a non-insured drunken driver causes an accident, more of the cost falls on the sober victims or on social institutions.

About 40 percent of those arrested on suspicion of DUI in Utah are actually convicted of that offense, said Bart Blackstock of the Utah Driver License Division. Some 70 percent are convicted either of DUI or another offense related to the arrest.

Loss of driving privileges and cancellation of vehicle insurance are two of the financial penalties facing those who drive while intoxicated. But such penalties may not actually deter driving.

In Utah, a first conviction on DUI means mandatory 90-day suspension of the driver's license. Whether the drunken driver continues to drive would only be apparent if he or she were stopped for some traffic violation, Blackstock noted.

An NHTSA study showed that nationally, 14 percent of all intoxicated drivers in fatal crashes were driving on a suspended or revoked license. The association estimated that 60 percent to 80 percent of those whose licenses are suspended continue to drive.

Another study by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism concluded that half of those convicted of drunken driving who lose their licenses as a result don't reapply when they become eligible.

Vehicle insurers generally don't act against a client's coverage unless there is court action, Olsen said. "We don't take action against a driver's insurance coverage until the license has been revoked or suspended" by a court. "Each case is considered on its own merits," he said.

The price for vehicle insurance rises — sometimes doubling — for drivers identified as being high risk. The higher premiums, which they must pay to particular insurers willing to accept them, can be in effect as long as five years, even if there are no further citations for DUI. Some drivers with DUI records may find the cost too high and drop their coverage. Approximately 7.5 percent of all Utah drivers don't have vehicle insurance at any given time. How many of those are a potential risk to others as drunken drivers is not known.

The penalty for failing to insure a vehicle in Utah is a $1,000 fine and six months in jail, Blackstock said, but again, the penalty can't be enforced unless the driver is caught. And if he or she is caught as the result of a drunken driving accident, the victims — and society are the ones who may pay.

E-mail: tvanleer@desnews.com