Insurance experts suspect a growing number of Minnesota drivers don't have vehicle insurance, resulting in higher rates for those who do.
However, estimating the number of uninsured motorists in Minnesota is largely guesswork, because years ago, the state stopped checking most drivers to see if they're carrying insurance.
Patricia McCormack, the director of driver and vehicle services for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, believes the number of uninsured Minnesota motorists is about where it was five years ago.
"We're at twelve percent, according to the latest information from the Insurance Research Council," she said.
Minnesota relies on estimates from the Insurance Research Council, a Pennsylvania-based organization funded by the insurance industry, because Minnesota checks only a few thousand drivers a year -- people involved in crashes or impaired driving cases -- to see if they have insurance. The council reports a national and state-by-state estimate of uninsured drivers each year.
The Council's most recent estimates, made before the recession and before millions of people lost jobs, show the rate of uninsured motorists rises about three quarters of a percentage point for every one percentage point increase in unemployment.
Minnesota's unemployment rate a year ago was about 5 percent, and is just over 8 percent now. Using the Insurance Research Council formula, the rate of uninsured motorists in the state has risen from about 12 percent to just under 15 percent.
That suggests that about one in every seven of Minnesota's nearly 3.7 million licensed drivers doesn't have vehicle insurance.
Mark Kulda, spokesman for the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, believes the number is higher.
"About one in every six Minnesotans drives without insurance, and the law requires that they have it," he said.
The Federation, a trade group representing insurance companies across the state, bases its estimate on the national projection from the Research Council and its own evidence gathered from talking with Minnesota insurance agents, Kulda said.
"They peg that number much higher," he said. "They think it's close to 20 percent."
Why worry about uninsured drivers?
There were nearly 71,000 crashes in Minnesota last year, killing 455 and injuring more than 33,000 at a cost, state officials say, of $1.5 billion.
"The other motorists who drive with insurance end up paying for that," Kulda said.
In other words, people who don't buy insurance aren't contributing to a pool of cash to cover crash costs. The result is higher rates for law-abiding drivers.
Years ago, Minnesota motorists were required to show proof of insurance when renewing their vehicle registration.
That devolved into an honor system -- drivers were simply asked on the tab renewal form to supply an insurance company name and policy number.
Spot checks revealed a discouraging number of Minnesota drivers are less than honorable.
"People would just write a number down and list a company and we just did not have the staff to be able to verify all the vehicle owners of all the cars that are registering on a yearly basis," McCormack said.
McCormack says an attempt a few years back to spot-check for scofflaws failed.
The state suspended the drivers licenses of randomly selected motorists who didn't respond to a letter asking them to supply proof of insurance.
McCormack says numerous letters were sent to old addresses and were never received by drivers who later on, one way or another, learned their license had been suspended. The program was abandoned.
"We had very many frustrated and upset customers and constituents of legislators," she said.
McCormack says their research shows there are generally three groups of people who don't buy car insurance: One group is being squeezed by the recession and cutting expenses; another group, she says, includes people who just don't get around to it; and then there's a third group with philosophical objections.
"People that just do not support government regulation mandating coverage of insurance," she said.
To account for the scofflaws, Minnesota requires that law-abiding motorists have policies with coverage for uninsured or underinsured drivers.