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Assisted Driving Is Taking Over

The power of 35.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) estimates that automatic emergency braking and forward-collision warning features could curtail injury claims by as much as 35%. The California Department of Motor Vehicles estimates that in 35% of crashes the brakes were not applied. It is striking that these two numbers match.

These savings are not surprising. Automatic braking will avoid some accidents altogether. When an accident nevertheless occurs, automatic braking may greatly reduce the speed on impact. As a matter of simple physics, a reduction in speed results in an exponential reduction in the kinetic energy that must be absorbed in a collision. The formula, for those interested, is Kinetic Energy = 1/2mv2, where “m” is the mass of the vehicle and “v” is the vehicle’s velocity. Thus, a vehicle that collides at 30 mph has only one-fourth the kinetic energy of a vehicle that collides at 60 mph.

While automatic emergency braking and forward-collision warning are standard in some luxury cars and are available as options in many others, 10 automakers have agreed with the National Highway Traffic Administration and the IIHS to establish a time frame for making assisted driving features standard in all cars.

These are significant developments for insurers and for public policy makers.

For insurers, a 35% decrease in injury claims will result in a significant reduction in premium. This may be offset, at least in part, by an increase in the cost of repair for more sophisticated vehicles and the continuing increase in healthcare costs.

Public policy makers should contemplate the potential benefits of a 35% reduction in injuries and deaths because of assisted driving. At present, highway deaths in the U.S. account for 33,000 to 35,000 deaths per year (depending on how one correlates deaths to auto accidents). Over 10 years this is the equivalent to the population of some major cities-St. Louis, Minneapolis, Des Moines or the city of your choice. A 35% reduction would reduce deaths from 33,000 to 21,450. Every year, 11,550 more people would continue to go about their lives. Add a similar reduction in the more than 2.5 million injuries per year, and the public benefit is overwhelming.

These benefits only accrue as assisted driving features find their way into the fleet. This can be a slow process. It is estimated that electronic stability control, which has been available as an option for many years and has been mandatory since 2012, will not reach 95% penetration until 2029. This is because the average age of automobiles is a bit more than 11 years. Thus, anything that can hasten the adoption of these safety features (and others that are to come) benefits everyone.

Encouraging adoption directly implicates insurance. Auto insurance is one of the more expensive costs of owning a car. The cost of these safety features, either as an option or as a standard feature, is also an expense of owning a car. It is critical that savings from the lower frequency and severity of accidents be rapidly passed on to car owners in lower insurance rates, which will help offset the added cost and promote more rapid adoption.

Even when assisted driving features become standard, which will be some years in the future, the majority of the existing fleet may still be on the road for another 11 years or so. Passing substantial insurance savings to potential purchasers will make retiring the old heap more palatable.

Policy makers and regulators can play an important part in facilitating adoption of these safer cars. Laws and regulations that may impede the rapid distribution of insurance savings to insureds should be streamlined. Likewise, some driver-centric rating systems that may distort rates by artificially depressing the weight given to the safety of the vehicle should be reviewed.

Self-driving vehicles of the future have captured the attention of the public and the insurance industry. While many have been looking toward that day, enormous improvements in safety-critical technology are taking place right now. In a sense, the future is already here. Cars are taking over many safety-critical functions from their more fallible drivers. Insurers and policy makers must adjust.

Those interested in a lengthier treatment of this topic can read this article by Thomas Gage and Richard Bishop. And here is a Bloomberg article on a Boston Consulting Group study of the issue.

First Lyft Fatality Shows Inadequacies of California Law

A Lyft passenger was killed over the weekend near Sacramento, an incident that underscores inadequacies in California’s insurance laws. As reported in Forbes, the Lyft driver saw a stalled Kia on Interstate 80 and swerved to the right, hitting a tree. One passenger died. The second passenger and the Lyft driver were injured. An incident like this causes one to ponder the arbitrary rules governing life, death and the arbitrary rules governing uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage (UM/UIM) in California.

For example, the news article asserts that “if the death had been caused by a hit-and-run driver, the accident would be covered under Lyft’s $1 million uninsured/underinsured motorist policy.”

Not so.

Lyft does not disclose on its web site the provisions of its UM/UIM coverage, so let’s assume it tracks California Ins. Code sec. 11580.2 governing UM/UIM coverage. Subsection (b)(1) requires “physical contact” with the UM/UIM vehicle. If the Lyft driver hit a tree rather than the car, there is no physical contact with the UM/UIM vehicle. The nimble driver who avoids the pile-up but comes to grief on a tree receives no UM/UIM coverage. Neither do the passengers.  It makes no difference whether a convention of 20 bishops saw the hit-and-run vehicle, or even if the accident were recorded on video.

Many jurisdictions (about half) find this restriction unnecessary, so why should California leave the passengers and driver unprotected?

Assume the hit-and-run driver is discovered and the driver carries $1 million in liability coverage (highly improbable). The pile-up included a number of cars, plus a big rig, and caused numerous injuries. By the time this $1 million is spread around, there may only be leftovers for the occupants of the Lyft car. Because the coverage is inadequate to compensate their injuries, they can, then, call on Lyft’s $1 million UM/UIM coverage, right?.

Not so.

UM/UIM coverage is triggered only when the underinsured party’s limits are “less than the uninsured motorist limits carried on the motor vehicle of the injured person [the Lyft car in this case].” Subsection (p)(2). It makes no difference that the responsible party is grossly underinsured with respect to the damages.

Again, this is a restriction many states (e.g., Arkansas) find unnecessary.

Now assume the responsible driver has a $50,000 limit, and a gravely injured Lyft passenger accepts $49,500 in settlement with the underinsured driver. Now the passenger may look to Lyft’s $1 million UM/UIM policy for compensation, right?.

Not so.

By failing to collect the remaining $500, the passenger has forfeited any claim to the $1 million UM/UIM coverage. Subsection (p)(3) provides that UIM coverage does not apply “until the limits of bodily injury liability  policies applicable to all insured motor vehicles causing the injury have been exhausted by payments of  judgments or settlement . . . .” Thus, the passenger must go to trial against the intransigent party to collect the remaining $500.

Once again, many states (e.g., Nevada, Idaho) do not follow this restriction.

Once a gravely injured Lyft passenger has collected the $50,000 limit from the responsible party, the passenger may recover any remaining damages up to the $1 million limit of Lyft’s UM/UIM policy, right?

Not so.

California allows the UM/UIM carrier to subtract from its limits any recovery from other parties regardless of the extent of the passenger’s injuries, according to Subsection (p)(4)(A).

Yes, once again, many states (e.g., Nevada, Utah) do not endorse this setoff rule.

California’s UM/UIM rules fall well below best practices in other states. If Arkansas can have better UM/UIM coverage, why not California? California should follow the lead of other states and scrap these arbitrary restrictions.

Even if California’s rules were tolerable with respect to private automobile insurance, in commercial settings the public is entitled to more protection (otherwise, why must Lyft carry $1 million bodily injury and $1 million UM/UIM coverage when only $15,000/$30,00 is required for private auto, and UM/UIM is optional?) Changes could be accomplished either by legislation or possibly by the California Public Utilities Commission’s specifying the commercial UM/UIM coverage requirements for charter party carriers. After all, if Uber, Lyft and others are to operate in other states, they must purchase UM/UIM policies that do not have these restrictions.

California Law on Uber et Al.: Model for All States?

On Sept. 17, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law AB 2293 (Bonilla) regulating insurance coverage for  transportation network companies (“TNCs,” such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar). Two purposes of the bill were: (1) to fill a possible gap in coverage caused by an exclusion in personal automobile policies and (2) to allocate responsibility between TNCs and personal automobile insurers for insurance coverage issues. The statute attempts to achieve its purposes by creating a “firewall.” When a driver is logged on to the TNC network, the insuring responsibility is on the TNC policy.  When a driver is logged off, responsibility is on the personal automobile insurer. Think of “Log On” and “Log Off” as bookends.

One might expect this statute to become a model for other states struggling with similar issues. Unfortunately, some infelicitous language in the statute may undermine the desired clarity. The mischievous phrase is “in connection with.”

Once a driver logs on, but before being matched with a fare (referred to as Period One), the statute requires a TNC policy of 50/100/30 (in other words, $50,000 of coverage for bodily injury per person, $100,000 for bodily injury per accident and $30,000 for property damage). The statute also requires an additional policy of $200,000 to cover any liability arising from a participating driver “using a vehicle in connection with a transportation network company’s online-enabled application or platform within the time periods specified in this subdivision . . . .”  [Emphasis added in all cases].

Assume a driver, while logged on, decides to drive over the river and through the woods to his grandmother’s house. A TNC could legitimately argue that this driving is no longer “in connection with a transportation network company’s online-enabled application or platform.” By taking a detour, the driver has abandoned the TNC work.

If so, does the personal automobile insurance cover an injury caused on the way to grandma’s? Apparently not. Section 5434(b) of the new statute says the TNC policy covers the period from Log On until Log Off, or until the passenger exits the vehicle, whichever is later. For ease, think of this as the bookends again. Subdivision (b)(1) then provides that the personal auto policy “shall not provide any coverage” unless the policy expressly provides for that coverage “during the period of time to which this subdivision is applicable.” So, personal auto cannot provide “any coverage” within the bookends. These provisions may have created a gap within the bookends large enough to drive an SUV through.

What about driving outside the bookends? Is that clearly covered only by the driver’s personal auto policy?

The statute requires the TNC to advise the driver “that the driver’s personal automobile insurance policy will not provide coverage because the driver uses a vehicle in connection with a transportation network company’s online-enabled application or platform.” Thus, the statute permits (and perhaps mandates) personal automobile policies to exclude coverage for driving “in connection with . . . .”

When is driving “in connection with?” The “Case of the Yoga and Yoghurt” provides a good analogy. The basic rule is that collisions that occur while “coming and going” to and from work are not the responsibility of one’s employer. Simple commuting is not within the “scope of employment.” When, however, a person uses her automobile for work purposes, the rule completely changes. Judy Bamberger, an employee of an insurance company, used her car during work to visit clients and carry out other work-related chores. On her way home, she decided to stop for yoga and yoghurt. As she made a left turn, she collided with a motorcyclist. Is the employer responsible? “Yes.”

In Moradi v. Marsh USA, Inc., 210 Cal. App.4th 886 (2013), the court of appeal held that her driving fell within the scope of her employment because, since she used her car in her work, going to and from work conferred an “incidental benefit” on the employer. Put another way (although the court did not use these words), it was in connection with her employment.

It would seem to follow that if one must use a car in an activity (such as TNC driving), then going to or from that activity is “in connection with” the activity. Because Period One (Log On) is part of a TNC’s “online-enabled application or platform,” driving to a surge zone with the intention of logging onto the app upon arrival is driving “in connection with” driving during Period One. If this analysis is correct, it again undermines the clarity of the App On/App Off bookends.

It seems clear what the drafters had in mind, so this ambiguity could be remedied by clearly defining the meaning of “in connection with” – perhaps next legislative session. In the meantime, those considering using California’s law as a model may want to avoid importing this ambiguity.

Insuring Uber et Al.: A Rollercoaster Ride

The Santa Cruz Board Walk includes an old-fashioned rollercoaster ride named the Big Dipper. Establishing appropriate insurance requirements for transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber, Lyft, SideCar and Ride Share has been like a ride on the Big Dipper.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has jurisdiction over TNCs as “charter party carriers” — carriers for hire that, unlike taxis, must prearrange their rides. The Big Dipper ride began when the Consumer Protection and Safety Division of the CPUC sent cease-and-desist letters to some TNCs in 2010 and again in 2012.

After studying insurance issues related to TNCs, in September 2013 the CPUC required TNCs to carry insurance providing as much as $1 million of coverage per incident while “providing TNC services.” This phrase proved to be troublesome. There are three “periods” for TNC driving. Period One is when the driver turns on the TNC app (“log-on”) but does not yet have a match with a passenger. Period Two is when there is a match. Period Three is when a passenger is in the car. Although there is evidence in the record that the CPUC intended “providing TNC services” to cover all three periods, including Period One, it was not clearly stated in the rule. In addition, TNCs were uncomfortable extending $1 million in coverage to drivers merely because they were driving around while logged on.

Then came New Year’s Eve, 2013. An Uber driver killed a small child and injured the child’s mother and brother while driving during Period One. Because there was neither a passenger nor a match with a fare, it was possible that the driver was not “providing TNC services” and, therefore, was not covered by Uber’s insurance policy. It was likewise possible that the driver’s personal insurance would not apply. Because the driver was logged on, the accident fell within the policy’s exclusion for commercial or livery use (although in this case the personal auto insurer provided coverage up to the policy’s limits). If neither Uber’s policy nor the personal policy covered the accident, the driver would have been uninsured — an unacceptable outcome for the driver, the injured parties and public safety.

At least one TNC carried a “contingent” policy of $50,000 for an individual injury during Period One. The policy was triggered, however, only if the driver’s personal carrier declined coverage. This could lead to some odd results. If the driver had only $15,000 in coverage, and the driver’s carrier accepted responsibility, the injured pedestrian could look only to $15,000 in coverage. If the driver’s insurer declined to cover the accident, the pedestrian could look to the $50,000 coverage of the TNC policy. In any event, there was no legal requirement that the TNC have coverage for Period One, and either $15,000 or $50,000 did not approach the $1 million the CPUC thought it had required.

Following the New Year’s Eve accident, both the CPUC and the California legislature rushed to fill this possible “gap.” The president of the CPUC proposed requiring a minimum of coverage of $100,000 for one injured person, $300,000 for more than one person and $50,000 for property damage (a 100/300/50 policy) of “excess” insurance for Period One, but the legislature arrived first.

Although several bills were introduced, AB 2293 (Bonilla) is the only bill that made it to the finish line. Initially, the bill sought only to build a “firewall” between personal insurance and TNC driving. The bill exempted personal auto insurance from covering driving while a TNC driver was logged on. Personal auto insurers argued that this driving is often more dangerous than ordinary personal driving, so, if personal auto insurers were responsible for the risk during Period One, the additional costs would be passed on to other auto owners. This might raise rates and would be a subsidy to commercial TNC enterprises.

The TNCs asked that their insurance limit during Period One be limited to 50/100/30, perhaps concerned that the CPUC wanted to require more coverage (recall that the CPUC was initially of the opinion that its $1 million requirement extended to Period One), To bolster their argument, the TNCs pointed to the limits adopted in a similar Colorado statute. The bill in California was amended to include the 50/100/30 limit for Period One.

Stakeholders pointed out that these limits were woefully inadequate to cover the injuries from the New Year’s Eve accident. The limits would also be inadequate to cover many other accidents.

The Bill was amended. Now, coverage for Period One would be $750,000 per incident (a 750/750/750 policy). This is the minimum coverage the CPUC has applied to limousines for 20 years or more. In addition, for losses exceeding $750,000 the TNC was to “assume all liability of the participating driver.” Liability, in effect, was limitless.

Now we are at the top of the ride. Hang on.

The TNCs were very unhappy with this turn of events. There was also concern whether such policies were available and, if so, affordable. TNCs are very popular with consumers, and few people wanted to appear to stifle this area of transportation innovation (with the exception, of course, of taxi drivers).

The bill was amended again. Period One coverage would now be 100/300/50, with $1 million of excess coverage. In addition, the drafters deleted the requirement that the TNC assume all of the driver’s liability.

More lobbying, more horse trading and more diplomacy resulted in yet another amendment. The new limits were lowered to 50/100/30 (remember the limits in the Colorado law?), but with an excess policy of $500,000. It was unclear, however, whether the excess policy covered the driver or only the TNC. With these lower limits, drivers might have found that their personal auto insurance would not cover them, yet their TNC coverage would be inadequate. This would put their personal assets at risk.

It occurred to the drafters that there was little point in adopting a bill unless the governor, who had not yet taken a position, would sign it. After consultation with the governor’s office, the bill was amended for the final time. Period One maintained the minimum TNC coverage of 50/100/30, but the additional, excess policy was lowered from $500,000 to $200,000. The amendment also provided that the $200,000 excess policy must specifically cover the driver in addition to the TNC.

The bill carried forward earlier requirements for Periods Two and Three. The bill requires $1 million in liability coverage for Periods Two and Three and requires $1 million in uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage for Period Three. The bill directs the Department of Insurance to collaborate on a data-based study and report back to the legislature. To allow insurers time to create policies or endorsements to cover all of these requirements, the new limits are to take effect on July 1, 2015. If one is to be injured by a TNC driver during Period One, it may be best to consider postponing the injury until then.

The final bill also did something else. During final amendments, two words were added — “at least.” Period One coverage, including the $200,000 excess coverage, must be “at least” those limits set out above. Because AB 2293 specifically permits the CPUC to continue exercising its rulemaking authority “in a manner consistent with” AB 2293, if the CPUC were to adopt higher limits (for instance, the $750,000 limit it applies to limousines), these limits would be “consistent” with limits “at least” those outlined above.

So we complete our first Big Dipper ride where we began — with the CPUC. Two words — “at least” — are the CPUC’s ticket to reboard the Big Dipper. When the time is right, perhaps there will be yet another dizzying ride. Please lower the bar snugly across your lap and keep your hands and feet inside.

‘Sharing Economy’ Has Tricky Insurance Issues

Imagine the unimaginable – you accidentally injure a passenger or pedestrian with your car. How much insurance do you carry to protect them or yourself? Like many, you may carry only $15,000 per individual injury (the minimum, unchanged since 1967, required by California). If your income is low enough to qualify, you may carry a Low Cost Auto policy with only a $10,000 limit. Such minimum limits are a compromise. Insurance is expensive, and states try to balance the utility of car use against insurance costs that, if too high, would reduce that utility. You may, of course, carry higher limits. Or, perhaps, you are like approximately one in seven California drivers, and you illegally drive with no insurance.

Now assume that you are among the many auto owners who have joined the “sharing economy.” You use a smartphone app to match yourself and your car with others willing to pay you for a lift. Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and others (“Transportation Network Companies,” or TNCs) offer these apps, share the fees with you and make this popular service available to thousands.

Again, imagine the unimaginable – a collision injuring your passenger or a pedestrian. Keeping in mind that any insurance cost is ultimately passed on to the passenger, how much insurance should be required for a TNC driver?  $10,000? $15,000? $50,000 (the maximum required for private autos in any state and the minimum required in California if you allow others to rent your auto)? Or perhaps $106,841 (the value in 2014 dollars of $15,000 in 1967)? $750,000 (the minimum required of limousine companies)? Some other figure?

Put another way, the question about how much insurance to carry is asking: How much should those who benefit from the sharing economy share the burden when the activity damages them or others?

Unlike most driving for personal reasons, TNC driving generates cash flow. To many, it seems only fair that some of that be used to extend additional protection to those injured by the activity. What should trigger the additional protection – when one turns on the TNC’s app to seek a fare, when a “match” is made or when a passenger enters the vehicle? Also, who should carry the insurance – the TNC, the TNC driver or some combination?

Currently, these questions are debated among legislators, regulators (such as the California Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC), TNC operators and others. Requiring lots of insurance by setting a high limit may chill innovation; setting the limit too low unnecessarily burdens injured parties or others (e.g., taxpayers, who support Medi-Cal or Medicaid and may end up paying for expenses not covered by private insurance) and may unfairly create a disadvantage for competing sources of transportation that may be subject to higher insurance limits.

Raise the price of insurance, and the price of a ride goes up. (This issue is hardly unique to TNCs. Congress is also debating whether to raise the federally mandated $750,000  truckers’ minimum insurance limit.) Not only might an increase in insurance costs for TNCs stifle a popular and convenient form of transportation, but it may lead some less safe drivers back into their vehicles (e.g., teenagers, intoxicated drivers, impaired drivers, poorly insured drivers, uninsured drivers or drivers with unsafe driving records). This, in turn, may lead to the unintended result of even more unnecessary injuries and deaths.

Much of the debate about TNCs is colored by a New Year’s Eve accident in San Francisco that occurred when a TNC driver with his app on (there is some evidence he may have been looking at it) struck and killed a pedestrian and injured several others. This is a tragic accident, but it also gives the debate an emotional overtone that may make it difficult to strike the correct balance. This accident could also have happened while a non-TNC driver was texting or talking, and there may have been minimal or no insurance available in that case.

In this author’s view, comprehensive legislation or regulation shaping the future of TNCs is premature. These fast-moving innovations are new enough that insurers, legislatures and regulators have been caught on the back foot. At the same time that policy makers are moving forward with regulations, insurers and TNCs are developing new products and strategies to address these issues.

While there is no shortage of those eager to express their opinions (perhaps this author included), there is little credible data on which to base sound policy decisions. Here are some of the many open questions:

–On average, how much would different limits add to the cost of a 10-mile ride? Ten cents? Ten dollars?

–How much will new insurance products cost?

–As the use of TNCs expands, will overall accident rates rise, or will they fall?

–If you drive to a ballgame with your daughter and a fare, will your daughter’s injuries be covered if you have an accident? (Your liability would not be covered under most personal auto policies – surprise!). Put another way, what terms and conditions will appear in any new insurance products or endorsements?

–Does the display of a TNC’s trade dress (essentially, its visual appearance) create ostensible or apparent authority should a passenger suffer injury? Would liability extend to an injured passenger who hailed a car displaying the TNC’s trade dress, even though the driver did not engage the TNC’s app so he could keep the entire fare? If the TNC is liable, could it seek reimbursement by claiming indemnity against the driver?

–If you drive 12,000 miles a year, but 2,000 of those miles are driven as a TNC driver and are insured by some form of TNC policy, should your personal auto insurer base your rate on 12,000 miles or on 10,000 miles? If the latter, how are the different miles to be confirmed?

–If you carry higher limits on your personal auto policy (e.g., $300,000 plus a $1 million umbrella), will the protection for you and anyone you injure drop to a lower TNC policy limit when you act as a TNC driver?

–One current bill in California (AB 2293 — Bonilla) provides that the TNC must assume ALL of the driver’s liability, without limit. By contrast, the CPUC’s proposed rules do not provide for unlimited liability. When is it appropriate to impose liability on the provider of an app as if users of apps were employees or agents of the app provider? Would the operator of an app that matches homes with those who want accommodation (e.g., Airbnb) be liable should a guest trip on an unsafe carpet or step? Would the operator of an app that matches car sellers and buyers be liable for an accident during a test drive? Would an app marketing tickets be liable if the bleachers collapse or the cruise line runs aground?

–Should liability turn on whether the app provider is more than passive? If so, what more is required? A profit motive? This would sweep up many apps. What if the app provider imposes rules on its users (e.g., vetting drivers for their safety record, adopting a zero-tolerance alcohol policy and reviewing ratings by customers)? If so, then forcing app providers to assume unlimited liability may discourage them from taking measures that could enhance safety. For these reasons, this liability provision in AB 2293 could have enormous implications and should be carefully considered.

–If, under AB 2293, the operator of the app is liable without limit, what purpose is served by mandating policy limits? If the operator of the app has sufficient net worth, it would be liable regardless of any policy limits that might be imposed.

–How, if at all, should one weigh the evolving existence of near-universal healthcare under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)? Covered parties who suffer injuries will at least have access to healthcare without limit and regardless of fault. Depending on any number of factors, the bulk of these health costs may fall on health insurers, liability insurers, the public or some combination.

Who knows answers to any of these questions? Without answers to these and related questions, it is likely that regulating in a partial vacuum will strike the wrong balance. Like emergency physicians, legislators and regulators should stabilize the patient but “Do No Harm.”

In the meantime, the public deserves protection. There should be no gaps in coverage (whatever trigger or limits are chosen). To keep rates reasonable and predictable, insurers also need clarity with respect to which insurers are responsible.

Prudence, however, suggests that any current legislation or regulation should have a firm sunset date. Otherwise, like barnacles, awkward legislation sticks and impedes progress.

During this initial period, the legislature should require (not just request) that the Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Insurance gather appropriate data and report back to the legislature before the legislation or regulation reaches its sunset. Regulators and legislators may, then, make informed, data-driven decisions that strike the most appropriate balance among all of the legitimate interests.