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Don't drop car insurance yet
State officials say PIP's demise doesn't spell the end of all coverages.
By JENNIFER LIBERTO, Times Staff Writer
Published August 23, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - Florida drivers, if you thought you would be able to drop all your auto insurance starting Oct. 1, think again.
After months of warning that the sunset of Florida's no-fault law would leave the state without any auto insurance requirements, the state highway agency has reversed course.
Florida drivers will still have to carry property damage coverage, the agency says now, even if the Florida Legislature allows the no-fault insurance law to expire.
Unless the Florida Legislature acts, starting Oct. 1, drivers will no longer be required to purchase $10,000 worth of personal injury protection, or PIP, which covers injuries in accidents no matter who is at fault.
The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles had said that the demise of the state's no-fault laws would also wipe out the state's only other kind of mandatory auto insurance coverage: property damage liability.
The surprise reversal was revealed in a legal opinion released Tuesday.
What is still unclear is whether the state will be able to enforce such coverage in the same way it now enforces personal injury protection, said agency spokeswoman Ann Nucatola.
Right now, if a driver drops his PIP coverage, state law requires his insurance company to notify the state agency of the cancellation. That way, Highway Safety can go after uninsured drivers. The same enforcement standards may not apply to those who decide to drop their property damage liability coverage; the agency is still looking into it.
"If we don't have enforcement, there would be nothing from stopping someone from going to register their car, showing their insurance, and then dropping it the next day," Nucatola said.
Some enforcement would still exist. If a driver gets in an accident, for example, the driver would be required to produce proof of property damage coverage or face a second-degree misdemeanor, a maximum $500 fine and 60 days jail time.
The strong enforcement requirements come from a 1988 Motor Vehicle Insurance Reform Act, enacted at a time when 31 percent of Florida drivers were uninsured, according to a Senate report on the no-fault system. The rate of uninsured drivers has since dropped to a low of 4 percent in 2005.
Without such enforcement, critics say that the property damage liability coverage will be ignored.
"If nobody is enforcing it, the property damage law will be moot," said Scott Johnson, executive vice president of the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, which wants the no-fault law revised and extended.
Legislators have not worried about the laws requiring property damage liability coverage the way they have worried about personal injury protection. With PIP, there's more money at stake and more opportunities for fraud, since insurers have to pay no matter who caused the wreck.
But fixing the no-fault system has proven difficult. The Legislature has made attempts each year since 2004, the year the sunset was approved, but every effort has failed in a crossfire of competing special interests.
The latest effort is a House proposal that would preserve mandatory personal injury protection, but with controversial changes that make it unlikely to pass in the Senate.
Several senators, including the chairman of the insurance committee, Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, said the House bill "may just go a bit farther than where the Senate needs to go."
'Life and death'
The proposal would retain the basic no-fault system with a $10,000 injury benefit, although it limits nonemergency care to $5,000. It caps attorneys' fees, requires PIP clinics to be owned by doctors and gets rid of 20 percent co-payments that now exist for policyholders, so the insurer pays everything.
Hospital and doctor groups released statements supporting the proposal on Wednesday; trial lawyers and some auto insurers said they would oppose it.
Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller, D-Cooper City, called the House plan an ultimatum that the Senate wouldn't stand for. He also said he thought the Legislature should not tackle auto insurance during the special session and instead wait for the next regular session.
"There are literally life and death decisions we have to make during the special session, and I just don't think we're going to mess that up with a discussion on PIP," Geller said.
Times staff writer Tom Zucco contributed to this report. Jennifer Liberto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850224-7263.
House Democrats have said they will file a bill to extend PIP another year at the special session on the state budget scheduled to start Sept. 18. However, if auto insurance is excluded from the official agenda, two-thirds of both chambers would have to agree to take up the issue. It rarely happens.