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Insurance gap needs to be filled

Many people who could use additional auto insurance protection may not find that out until it's too late. They would have a better chance of not facing that gap if the governor approves legislation encouraging, although not requiring, drivers to choose to buy greater liability insurance.

The bill, sponsored by the chairmen of the insurance committees, Sen. James L. Seward, R-Oneonta, and Assemblyman Joseph Morelle, D-Rochester, and passed overwhelmingly in both houses is expected to reach Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's desk soon.

It goes to the heart of what consumers often think they're getting and the reality that can hit them.

New York motorists tend to increase their liability insurance to protect other motorists from their negligence beyond the legal limit of $25,000 per individual and $50,000 per accident. And that's good because according to the Insurance Research Council, about 5 percent of cars in New York were uninsured in 2009. That places New York at the very lowest end of states by percentage of uninsured motorists, but that's still a big number.

So what about those people who have already opted to increase their liability insurance?

What they don't know - and may find out painfully after a serious accident - is that their increase in liability insurance coverage was not matched by an increase in their supplementary uninsured/underinsured motorist (SUM) insurance. This is the insurance that provides coverage in the event that they are the victims of an accident with an uninsured or underinsured driver.

It isn't until the unpaid bills start to show up that many discover they did not, in fact, have the coverage they expected.

Consumer advocates point to the case of Staten Island residents Victor and Wilma Rao, who were hit by an uninsured ex-convict who was driving drunk. The local business owners had purchased additional liability insurance but did not have additional SUM coverage.

Both were seriously injured. Because the other driver had no insurance, the couple had to take care of hospital and rehabilitation bills that piled up above the $25,000 minimum uninsured/underinsured coverage they had.

New York's legislation would establish the default setting for SUM coverage at the amount chosen by the consumer for liability. It is aimed only at consumers choosing liability coverage above the statutory minimums, and should cost less than $100 per year for most policyholders.

Again, this is not a requirement. The supplemental insurance, for those who can afford it, is a prudent investment. This law will ensure that they know about it.