By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A SENIOR insurance executive yesterday said it would not take "a heavy lift" to crack down on uninsured drivers who threaten to inflict a substantial loss on 80 per cent of Bahamian motorists.
Patrick Ward, Bahamas First's president and chief executive, told Tribune Business that law enforcement should be the first step to address the menace rather than the 'innocent driver' protection fund suggested by the Court of Appeal's president.
Estimating that more than "30 per cent" of vehicles in the Bahamas are driven by persons lacking the necessary insurance coverage, Mr Ward said Dame Anita Allen's call for a UK Motor Insurers Bureau-type solution was not viable unless this ratio was reduced to "the bare minimum".
Otherwise the number of accidents caused by uninsured or 'unauthorised' drivers would place an unsustainable burden on insured motorists to finance the consequences of their misdeeds, namely the injuries and vehicle write-offs that would result.
And with just 15-20 per cent of Bahamas-based vehicles possessing comprehensive coverage, the Bahamas First chief said four out of every five drivers were potentially exposed to life-changing injuries and financial losses inflicted by their uninsured counterparts.
Arguing that enforcement must come before a driver protection mechanism, Mr Ward told Tribune Business: "I think that like other markets that have to grapple with the same issues, there's a certain logic behind a fund to protect innocent parties caught up with uninsured drivers.
"But in the context of the Bahamas, we have to absolutely strengthen the front-end enforcement." This, he explained, required the Royal Bahamas Police Force, supported by the Road Traffic Department and insurance industry, to better detect rogue drivers earlier with the courts following through with the appropriate sanctions and punishment.
"There needs to be a seamless flow of information between the Road Traffic Department and insurance community so they can have real time updates, and know which are the vehicles where drivers have allowed their policies to lapse or are not covered," Mr Ward said.
"The information should be available to the Police Traffic Department, and the police in general when they do their road stops, so they have instant electronic data. That's possible right now if we have an understanding between the Government and insurance industry on how and what platform that will be put on."
He added: "I don't think it involves much of a heavy lift and is not that difficult. Given the state of technology it's more a case of thinking through the process and providing a legal flow of information between the Road Traffic Department and the insurance industry without violating Data Protection issues.
"If we can work through the issues on that basis, it will give us a significant step in the right direction. That has to be a precursor to creating a fund because if we don't reduce uninsured drivers to a bare minimum I question whether that fund is a viable proposition, especially if we don't do the enforcement. Nowadays the technology is available, and it's easier to do things than it was 10 years ago."
Mr Ward's position mirrors that taken by his fellow property and casualty insurance executives, who warned that Dame Anita's suggestion could place an unsustainable burden on law-abiding Bahamian drivers to finance the sins of their irresponsible counterparts via a Motor Insurers Bureau-type fund.
The Bahamas First chief added that the number of uninsured, or not appropriately insured, vehicles on Bahamian roads "tends to get up into the 30 per cent-plus range" when 'unauthorised' or unlicensed drivers are factored into the equation.
While persons with comprehensive insurance are covered for all eventualities, Mr Ward said the high ratio of uninsured drivers represented a major risk for the majority of law-abiding motorists - chiefly those with third party coverage.
He added that it was "a risk and exposure primarily borne by the general public", who had to bear the cost of medical treatment and vehicle repairs - and even the replacement value of a new vehicle - if they were hit by uninsured or unauthorised drivers.
"If you look at the spread of vehicles throughout the country, I would say between 15-20 per cent of vehicles are comprehensively insured," Mr Ward told Tribune Business. "If 80 per cent of vehicles driven on the road are insured for third party risk only, it doesn't take a significant number of accidents where there is no insurance on the other side to understand how big of an issue this is."
He added that victims of such drivers frequently had to bear the financial loss of repairs or finding a new vehicle, and often discovered that "pursuing" the culprits was of little use as they frequently lacked the assets and financial resources to provide proper compensation.
The ongoing anarchy on Bahamian roads was recently highlighted by the $12,340 fine handed down to a Wendy's employee for running over and killing a 52 year-old man in an uninsured and unlicensed vehicle, and promptly fleeing the scene.
Maronique Paul, a 24 year-old mother of one, with another child on the way, pled guilty to driving while not insured against third party risk; driving an unlicensed vehicle; driving without a valid driver's licence; fraudulent use of a licence plate; fraudulent use of a licence disk; and failing to remain stationary after an accident.
And Dame Anita's call for a 'rogue driver' protection fund is likely to strike a further chord with many Bahamians who have either been a victim themselves - or seen family and friends suffer - as a result of being unable to claim against the culprit's insurance.
The Court of Appeal president made the call after overturning a Supreme Court verdict that permitted two road accident victims to enforce a $654,000 damages claim against Bahamas First.
The company had insured both the vehicle, and the mechanic, involved in a 2004 collision in Eleuthera. The Court of Appeal, though, found that the victims - Monica and Betty Thompson - cannot claim damages from Bahamas First because the mechanic was not among the 'authorised' drivers listed on the vehicle's insurance policy.
As a result, the Thompsons have yet to obtain a single cent from the $654,000 damages award in their favour. Their case mirrors that of Eric Antonio, who was blinded in an accident with a jitney, yet was also unable to claim $521,943 from its insurers because the driver was not 'authorised' to operate the vehicle.
Bahamians frequently hand vehicle keys to their friends and family, while companies often allow any employee to drive, even though they are not included among the 'authorised' drivers.