Megan Cogal's smile is still as pretty as the one in her high school graduation photo, which sits next to her bed in the head injury unit of Montebello Rehabilitative Hospital.
The Pontiac station wagon that hit Megan as she stood by her car last August threw her 20 feet and left her with a broken leg, arm, pelvis, ribs and scapula and internal head injuries. She is virtually unable to use the left side of her body, and her short-term memory has all but abandoned her.
The 22-year-old former high school track star radiates optimism even as her words reflect her frustration: "I feel like I'm in prison."
A very expensive prison. Her medical bills, including an eight-month stay at Montebello, already have topped a half-million dollars. And, because of a little-understood aspect of auto insurance in Maryland, her coverage has proved pitifully small.
Megan's stepfather, Jack Rowden, thought he had plenty of auto insurance. But after her accident, he discovered that his $100,000 policy covered only lawsuits filed against him by an accident victim.
The driver who hit Megan was responsible for her medical bills. But he carried the minimum $20,000 of auto insurance. Mr. Rowden's uninsured/underinsured motorist protection might have picked up the slack, but he had only slightly more than the minimum required UM coverage of $20,000.
Mr. Rowden recalls that his company, United Services Automobile Association, offered him more UM coverage, but "I didn't think it was important because it was only $6. You don't look at it till you need it, which is too late in some cases."
Megan's experience illustrates a common problem in Maryland. An estimated 50 percent of the state's drivers carry the minimum UM insurance, exposing themselves to huge risks.
One state legislator is proposing an ounce of prevention: a bill that would require insurers to sell a higher level of UM coverage unless the customer rejects it. Several states, including Virginia, have such laws. But most insurers oppose the idea, in part because they fear a backlash from customers saddled with higher insurance premiums.
The legislation, which failed this year partly because of confusion due to a drafting error, will reappear next year, and Delegate Carolyn Krysiak, D-Baltimore, is busily lining up support. Her bill would require insurers to sell drivers the same amount of UM coverage as their bodily injury (BI) liability insurance, unless the driver specifically decides to turn down the higher coverage.
Without adequate UM coverage, Ms. Krysiak argues, drivers are leaving themselves open to a monumental "back door" risk most don't realize exists. A driver can insure himself to the hilt with BI coverage only to find, as Mr. Rowden did, that his own financial protection can depend on someone else's insurance.
The state Motor Vehicle Administration estimates there are 96,000 vehicles without insurance on Maryland's roads.
Martha Roach, executive director of the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, most of whose 121,000 drivers carry only the minimum UM coverage, says the MVA estimate may be low. "I believe there's a good possibility that there are more uninsured drivers out there than MAIF insureds," she says.
And the State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., the biggest player in the market, says that almost 45 percent of its customers carry $50,000/$100,000 of bodily injury coverage or less; 14.5 percent carry $25,000/$50,000 or less. (The first number is the limit of coverage for any one person; the second is the total amount the insurer will pay for all victims in an accident.)
Under a 1989 law, insurers now are required to notify customers in writing about their right to buy more UM coverage. Allstate and some other insurers send customers a full-page explanation of UM coverage and request an acknowledgment from them.
Some of those notices are clear and informative, Ms. Krysiak admits. But even the best disclosure forms usually get tossed in the trash. "You get this stuff in the mail from the insurance company to renew [your policy], you look at the price at the bottom, and you send in your check," she says. "I don't think the average person is going to take the time to investigate it."
If the bill sounds like the state forcing more insurance on its citizens, that's about the size of it, although drivers would retain the right to reject the higher coverage. But Ms. Krysiak argues that the stakes are too high to continue allowing uninformed motorists to protect others more than they protect themselves.
Last December, Megan Cogal's mother, Betty Rowden, got an initial tally of her bills from the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma unit, and from Montebello. It was about $500,000. Mrs. Rowden hasn't had an update since then.