Do you own or operate a motor vehicle in Washington? If so, you have to comply with the state's financial responsibility law. The purpose of that law is to make sure that people who drive in the state can pay compensation (what the law calls "damages") for accidents they cause.
After a brief introduction to Washington's fault-based auto insurance system, we'll explain:
Washington, like most states, has adopted a traditional fault-based auto insurance system. If you're injured in a motor vehicle accident, you can bring a claim against the driver whose negligence (carelessness) caused the wreck. The responsible driver is liable for all of your damages, including, for example, your medical bills, lost income, pain and suffering, and more.
Washington law requires that drivers prove their financial ability to pay for damages they cause. As discussed below, most drivers buy an auto insurance policy to comply with this law.
In Washington, a person who drives a motor vehicle must demonstrate "proof of financial responsibility for the future." (Wash. Rev. Code § 46.29.260 (2023).) Stated more directly, they must be able to show that they're financially able to pay for (at least some of) the damages they cause in an accident.
The minimum financial responsibility requirements are:
In insurance-speak, this is sometimes described as "25/50/10 coverage."
You can meet Washington's financial responsibility requirements in three ways. (Wash. Rev. Code § 46.30.020 (2023).)
Most people comply with the law by purchasing a liability insurance policy with at least 25/50/10 coverage limits. If you cause an auto accident, liability insurance pays the damages of people you injure (or whose property you harm), up to the limits of your coverage.
Keep in mind that 25/50/10 coverage is only the minimum required by Washington law. If you're legally responsible for an accident that causes damages higher than your policy limits, you'll also be responsible for the amounts exceeding your coverage. You should speak to your insurance agent to decide on the right amount of liability insurance for you.
You can deposit cash or securities valued at $60,000 with the Washington Department of Licensing. The Department will issue a certificate of deposit that serves as proof of financial responsibility. (Wash. Rev. Code § 46.29.550 (2023).)
Finally, you can buy a liability bond—a guarantee of payment by the bonding company—with 25/50/10 coverage limits. (Wash. Rev. Code § 46.29.520 (2023).)
Your auto insurance covers you, as well as any others who are named as insured in the policy. Most insurance policies will also cover your spouse and other relatives who live in your household. Finally, people driving your car with your permission (called "permissive users") also typically are covered.
The auto listed in your policy will be insured. Replacement vehicles should be covered too, but you need to let the insurance company know (usually within 30 days or less) that you've replaced your car. Temporary autos—like a rental car or a loaner from your dealer—will normally also be insured.
Washington law doesn't require that you buy any other auto insurance. But there are other insurance options that might offer you much-needed protection. Speak to your insurance agent about what coverages are right for you.
If you're hurt in a Washington car accident, you have a couple of options for getting compensation. You can:
Under Washington's fault-based insurance law, you can bring a third-party claim (meaning a claim against the other driver's auto insurance policy) or file a car accident lawsuit against a driver who's legally at fault for causing the wreck. Unlike a no-fault state, you can go after the at-fault driver without first making a claim under your own auto insurance. If your claim or lawsuit succeeds, you can collect the full range of personal injury damages, including your medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, emotional distress, and more.
There are some drawbacks to a fault-based insurance system. First, it'll probably take some time to collect from the at-fault driver's insurance. An insurance claim might take months to settle. A lawsuit can take a year or more to finish. Second, it won't do you any good to pursue an at-fault driver if it turns out that they're uninsured.
Should you find yourself in one of these situations, you might consider filing a first-party insurance claim—a claim against your own insurance policy—if you have the proper insurance coverage.
Suppose your car was badly damaged and isn't driveable. Odds are you can't wait the weeks or months it might take to resolve a third-party insurance claim. If you have collision coverage as part of your auto policy, you can use that insurance to get your car repaired right away. You'll have to pay your collision deductible (likely $500 or $1,000), but you can recover that as part of your claim against the responsible driver.
If the responsible driver is uninsured, chances are they have no other assets you might look to in order to pay your damages. In that event, your only option is likely to be a claim under your own uninsured motorist coverage—if you have it. Uninsured motorist coverage takes the place of the at-fault driver's missing liability policy, covering all your damages up to your policy limit.
According to the Washington Department of Licensing, if you drive without the required insurance (or otherwise fail to comply with the state's mandatory auto insurance laws), you could be ordered to pay a fine of $550 or more. In addition, if you own or drive an uninsured motor vehicle that's involved in an accident resulting in personal injury or property damage of at least $1,000, your license might be suspended for up to three years.
Finally, you're required to have an insurance identification card. The card can be in paper or electronic form. (Wash. Rev. Code § 46.30.030(1) (2023).) Failure to display your insurance card is a traffic infraction and creates a presumption that you're uninsured. (Wash. Rev. Code § 46.30.020(1)(c-d) (2023).) If you knowingly provide false evidence of financial responsibility to a police officer or a court, you've committed a misdemeanor. (Wash. Rev. Code § 46.30.040 (2023).)
Washington, like nearly every state, requires that drivers satisfy minimum financial responsibility requirements. Most drivers do this by purchasing auto insurance. You might want to consider having more insurance than what the law requires. Speak to your insurance agent about the right coverages for you.
If you were hit by an uninsured Washington motorist, your best move will be to consult with an experienced personal injury lawyer to find out about your options. Here's how to find an attorney near you.