High unemployment in the San Joaquin Valley is driving fear that more motorists are going without auto insurance because they can't afford it.
That's why the Department of Insurance and the California Highway Patrol are making a push to let low-income drivers know about a low-cost auto insurance program. It provides basic liability coverage required under state law.
The most recent estimates from 2007 suggest that 18 percent of Californians did not have automobile insurance, said Darrell Ng, associate deputy commissioner for the state Department of Insurance.
That was more than in any year since 1997, according to department estimates.
Now it's probably even higher because of job losses across the state. In Fresno County, the jobless rate in September was 14.1 percent, compared with 9.4 percent a year ago.
Ng will joined CHP officers in Fresno on Thursday to promote the California Low Cost Automobile Insurance Program. The program helps low-income drivers get insurance that fulfills their legal obligation.
"Every day more than a million uninsured drivers hit the roads in California," Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner said. "If you hit another vehicle, you have a lot to lose. It's not worth the serious financial risk."
The low-cost insurance means "there's really no excuse," Poizner added.
To qualify, drivers must be at least 19, have a good driving record, own a vehicle valued at less than $20,000 and fall below certain income thresholds. For a family of two, that's $36,425 or less per year. For a family of four, it's $55,125 per year.
$258 a year
California law typically requires motorists to provide proof of insurance coverage amounting to $15,000 per person or $30,000 per accident for bodily injury and $5,000 for property damage. Such coverage carried an annual premium ranging from $632 to $2,200 for a married couple in 2007, according to a Department of Insurance survey of insurance companies.
But for qualifying families, the low-cost insurance program — offered at $258 per year in Fresno County — satisfies the state's financial responsibility law by providing $10,000 of coverage per person or $20,000 per accident for bodily injury and $3,000 for property damage liability.
"This provides them with an amount of coverage that makes them legal," Ng said.
Qualifying drivers can upgrade their coverage for a few more dollars per month through the insurance company to which they are assigned, Ng said.
The basic insurance is catching on with motorists. In the first 10 months of this year, the number of drivers enrolled in Fresno County has more than doubled, from 311 to 707.
Similar growth is reported in other valley counties. But officials say they believe there are thousands of drivers in the region who qualify but likely don't know about the program.
"We hope nobody ever needs this program, but we know they do," Ng said.
In a report earlier this year, the Pennsylvania-based Insurance Research Council predicted that rising unemployment nationwide would "trigger a sharp rise in the uninsured motorist rate." The report cited a historical correlation between the unemployed and the uninsured: For each percentage-point increase in unemployment, researchers saw a corresponding increase of three quarters of a point in uninsured motorist rates.
In a separate study in April, the research council estimated that 9 percent of households nationwide either canceled or failed to renew insurance coverage for a vehicle as a money-saving measure last year.