Driver Safety Laws: An Old Approach That’s Worth Reviving

In the aftermath of a crash, we inevitably ask: How can a dangerous driver be kept off the road? It seems that the entire automobile transportation regime is aimed at keeping the driver behind the wheel. Absent impairment or flight from the scene of the crash, police quickly conclude that “no criminality is suspected.” The name of the responsible driver may be carefully guarded by police, even when the name of the victim or selective details are not. Government compels the insurance market to continue insuring the responsible driver, even if the market would consider the driver too risky to insure. The under-resourced legal system and insurance industry neglect and obstruct crash litigation, pressuring victims to simply accept whatever insurance is available without holding the driver personally responsible.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Before the advent of compulsory auto insurance laws in the 1950s, New York and most other states had “safety responsibility” laws instead. Under these laws, drivers involved in crashes had their licenses suspended until they posted a bond or demonstrated insurance in an amount sufficient to compensate the crash victim. Based on their involvement in a crash, these drivers would also be required to maintain insurance as a condition of keeping their driving privileges.

Under New York’s safety responsibility law (codified as Section 94-b of the Vehicle and Traffic Law), the crash victim had the right to directly petition the commissioner of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles for suspension of license of any driver involved in a crash causing personal injury or $25 of property damage. Absent the requisite showing of financial responsibility, the commissioner was required to suspend the license of a driver within 45 days — even if there had not been any finding of fault. At least for those drivers without insurance and financial means, this approach resulted in prompt suspension of driving privileges for drivers involved in crashes.

Though ensuring compensation of victims was clearly the primary purpose of the safety responsibility law, it also had an undeniable deterrent effect. As one New York court explained in 1942, “the penalty which § 94–b imposes for injury due to careless driving is not for the protection of the [crash victim] merely, but to enforce a public policy that irresponsible drivers shall not, with impunity, be allowed to injure their fellows.”

The shortcomings of the safety responsibility approach, compared to the modern compulsory insurance requirement, are apparent. Under the earlier approach, the first victim of a driver without insurance or means would be uncompensated, while the license of a driver able to afford insurance was protected against suspension (at least, on grounds of financial irresponsibility). Also, under a compulsory insurance regime, compensation to the victims of uninsured or hit-and-run drivers is funded with a percentage of all premiums paid, while there is no source for compensating those victims under a safety responsibility law.

Yet it is instructive that for decades New York and many other states followed a system in which the licenses of drivers involved in crashes could be automatically suspended. While the modern Department of Motor Vehicles undertakes a discretionary “safety hearing” and licensure review in most cases involving a fatality, suspension or revocation is rarely employed unless the driver faces criminal charges — which itself occurs very rarely. Improving the accountability and transparency of this DMV safety hearing process would do much to improve street justice.

How about a hybrid approach that combines compulsory insurance with the deterrent effect of the earlier regime? Given the minimum liability insurance requirements in New York State — $25,000 for an injury, no matter how severe, and $50,000 in case of death — a strong case can be made for grafting a safety responsibility-type requirement on top of the existing insurance laws. Under this approach, a driver who purchased the minimum insurance (or no insurance at all) would be required to post a bond for their potential liability or give up their driver’s license.

Steve Vaccaro is an attorney with the Law Office of Vaccaro & White.

  • It’s noted that the law as it applies to driver collision liability, criminality and insurance is completely dysfunctional.

    However, I’m not of the mindset that reforming the law is going to create a better safety culture on the roads. Safety culture is what’s most important here.

    Most collisions between motor vehicles are minor, and we’re probably asking too much to have the law be exceedingly punitive to all at-fault collision participants while not making a mountain out of a molehill when the casualties are negligible (say, a bruised finger) or none.

    Instead, let’s make sure that the overall driving culture is one of rationality and safety. Stick to the speed limit, value care and safety over efficiency, encourage drivers not to react to other (unsafe) drivers, and enforce the existing laws strictly without excuses. This will reduce collisions and drastically reduce casualties.

    The tweaking of the laws, necessary as it seems, should not be the tipping point for road safety… there’s still so much that we need to do without relying on Albany to take action.

  • Daphna

    Thank you for Steve Vaccaro for writing this column. I am happy to be more informed about the beginning of compulsory insurance in the 1950s and the pros and cons that resulted from that.
    I do wish that changes in laws or in culture and attitudes would lead to drivers again being held responsible for the property damage, injuries, fatalities they cause both financially and with the loss of their driving privileges.

  • The Financial Responsibility law in Washington State is still on the books and still allows suspension of a driver’s license until they’ve paid for an accident. (RCW 46.29) But it’s a toothless tiger — plenty of people are already driving with suspended licenses, or no license at all.

    I would prefer adding a no-fault license suspension until completion of a driving safety test for any motorist involved in an accident, and any motorist charged with a serious moving violation.

    Hit someone? Doesn’t matter whose fault it is, as a matter of public safety, your license is suspended until you make it to the DMV and pass a current written and driving exam, just like anyone getting a license for the first time.

    Why no-fault? Why retest the driver who got hit, as well as the one who hit him? Because most accidents would have been avoidable if the not-at-fault driver had complied with their basic duty of due care.

    Far too many motorists forget most of what’s on the test within a year of getting licensed, they forget every rule that isn’t posted on a sign or frequently enforced, and there’s no ongoing requirement that drivers keep current on changes in traffic laws.

    Re-testing any driver whose record suggests an elevated risk to public safety should be mom-and-apple-pie obvious.

  • Anonymous

    “plenty of people are already driving with suspended licenses, or no license at all.”

    Therein lies the ultimate loophole. Meanwhile, I cannot log on to my work computer without inserting a smart-chip enabled card (looks exactly like a license) and typing in a PIN. Why? So if I cause mischief, they know exactly who to fire. Without the card, I cannot operate.

    It’s high time we augmented the system where cars won’t operate without a key (key = permission from the owner to use the vehicle) with a smart-chip license and pin pad. Contemporary cars have the computing power to work this way. All they need is about $10 worth of card reader and PIN pad.

    Lose one’s license to drive, and it therefore becomes impossible to drive. I might loan out my car, but I sure as hell won’t loan out my license and give out my PIN.

    Other advantages – the smart chip can contain restrictions, such as motorcycle and CDL privileges.

    We use modern technology in medicine, and it saves lives. Antibiotics are more effective than blood letting. Why de we still use 19th century technology – a metal key, a plastic document, deterrence and trust – in a field where it clearly fails miserably?

    Sure it will take 20 years or more to phase in such a scheme. That’s not a reason to do it – it’s a reason to start immediately.

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