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(Drafted a few weeks ago and not revised with updates, although there have been developments since then. I’ve been waiting for a slow day to post it.)
As an attorney, I know that you’re not supposed to talk about the accident, but I often tend to be incautious, so here’s the story. This past weekend, my wife was in our car with two of our daughters getting onto the freeway; the car in front of her stopped short; she stopped short to avoid hitting the car; the car behind her did not stop and rear-ended her. She and the driver of the other car exchanged the necessary information. He’s a man in his 40s, of apparently Latino heritage, with his name suggesting a South American rather than Mexican origin. She has received a call from an agent of his insurer; they’ll talk this afternoon.
Our youngest daughter, benefited by the physical flexibility of youth, has not complained of injuries. Her next-older sister has started having unusual (for her) headaches. My wife has been experiencing shoulder pain for the past 2-3 days and has had difficulty sleeping as a result. She’ll see the doctor on an “urgent appointment” basis this afternoon to check for significant injury and she will see our excellent chiropractor tomorrow to prevent her from worsening neck problems.
The back of the car — our “new-used” Prius with whose left rear tire regular readers of this blog may already be familiar — is badly scraped and pushed a bit out of square alignment towards the passenger’s side. I don’t yet know if there is damage to the frame and I hope to God that there isn’t because we all really like this car. Even the cosmetic damage, some of which is pictured above (and there’s more where that came from) will probably require replacement of the bumper and possibly the fender.
The driver’s insurance company will (or at least had better) cover the copay for the co-pay for the doctor’s visit and for what I’m guessing will be a muscle relaxant, as well as the fee for what I hope will be a solitary chiropractor’s visit. Hopefully it is nothing serious. If we need to rent a car, they’ll pay for it. Their insurer will pay for the repair of the Prius at some Toyota-improved body shop, infinitesimally increasing its rates. We’ll presumably eat the cost of the extra gas that it requires to drive our other car more while this car is repaired. My wife’s pain and an increase in our life-hassle aside, we will have been made whole.
Meanwhile, this accident actually helps the economy. It helps to keep our medical providers flush. Toyota is going to sell another bumper and whoever manufactures it will be happy. The insurance adjuster and the garage mechanics and their support staff all get some work time. Maybe the car rental company and its staff does at well. The system will work and everything’s fine, right?
Not entirely. I keep thinking about the driver of the other car — who, but for the grace of God, might as well be me. I have no reason to think that he is anything other than a good guy who made what may have been a tiny mistake. (Yes, yes — small mistakes can be fatal, but part of civilized society is making it less likely that small mistakes will lead to enormous harms. Better than one steps carelessly into a muddy hole by the side of the road and sprains an ankle than that one steps onto a landmine and blows off a leg. That’s what insurance is all about — making it less likely that we need to worry about landmines in our lives rather than mere potholes.) What I know about him is that he had insurance and he reported the accident promptly to what appears to be a real company. In those respects, he has acted responsibly when some would not. He is, provisionally, to be considered a good guy.
Perhaps the driver has a family; perhaps he has a job that requires a clean driving record. Perhaps he has a prior accident. I don’t know. I just know that the possibility exists that this (I hope) minor tragedy for us could prove to be a major tragedy for him. Maybe he loses his insurance. Maybe his premiums are hiked to the point where he can’t afford them. Maybe he voluntarily “goes bare” — driving without insurance, as I understand to be increasingly common in our suffering economy — and someday lands in jail for it. That, in turn, will damage whoever might get into the next accident with him.
If he had been, say, our nephew who rear-ended us, maybe we’d decide not to report the accident. Maybe he’d informally pay for my wife’s necessary medical care and for repair for the car. Maybe he’d pay for the car repair; maybe (even more likely) he gives us some money to cover the cosmetic damage with the promise of more if we sell it before it its value is so low that the tiger claw marks on its hind end no longer affect the selling price. Maybe we keep it away from the insurance company altogether if we can. (Is this itself a form of fraud? I don’t think so…. I’d have to check before doing it, of course. I’d in any case give my nephew a solemn and long-faced lecture, of the type I learned from my father, about how next time it might not be a relative in the other car, and that probably has a lot of deterrent value as well.)
But this guy isn’t our relative, so it didn’t happen that way. He didn’t run off; he stayed and gave my wife his insurance information and then he called the company himself. Now it’s out of our hands. The penalty for this sort of small error with potentially devastating consequences is usually an economic one. This is justified in part by compensation (my wife as the victim should be “made whole”), in part by the goal of deterrence (“don’t be negligent because it’s expensive for you”), and in part because it may move him out of a favored insurance pool where (this is evidence that) he doesn’t belong.
Yes, all of that’s true — but there’s another motivation as well, an unsavory and usually unstated one that drives our policy choices as a society. The economic punishment that this presumed good guy faces is good for business because it leads to him to become more desperate — and desperate people are quieter and more pliable. Desperate people are scared to make waves. Desperate people will tend to follow even illegal orders from their “superiors” because they can’t afford to lose a job. Desperate people reconcile themselves and their families to shorter lives with more suffering and less freedom — because what’s the alternative?
The debate over Obamacare, in my opinion, largely misses the most critical point. The prospect of losing one’s medical insurance if one loses one’s job, the prospect of the employer cutting out medical insurance, the prospect of oneself or one’s mate or one’s children being uninsurable due to pre-existing conditions, the prospect of medical bankruptcy (as 2500 American families newly experience each day, most of them insured and bankrupted by deductibles and co-pays) — it is this desperation that health insurance reform is designed — even if imperfectly executed — to alleviate.
A less desperate society might work a little less hard — but as the most productive country of the world (though nowhere near the most healthy or happy), we could handle ratcheting that down a little. Or, maybe those in a less desperate (and healthier and happier) society would work even harder — or work on things that they actually care about. Some of those things might be consumer protection, peace, liberty, justice — all of which, I expect we’d be told, is Bad for Business.
While I’m a Democrat, the “party” that I most truly see myself as belonging to is the “Anti-Desperation Party,” which right now is fighting with those in the Desperation Party. We’re entitled to fix our car and my wife’s and daughter’s injuries from the accident — but I’m not happy at the prospect of possibly pushing the driver who rear-ended them in a fleeting bad moment into the clutches of the (Pro-)Desperation Party.
(Of course, members of the Desperation Party would probably just say that such sympathy as that which I express here is for suckers.)