Every state requires drivers to prove they're able to pay for damages they cause in a car wreck. Most drivers meet this requirement by buying auto insurance. But if you buy only the types and minimum amounts of insurance required by your state law, you could be in for a surprise—not the good kind—if you cause a wreck that results in serious injuries.
We'll review the different types of car insurance coverages that are available, explaining the protection each offers. At the same time, we'll discuss the kinds and amounts of auto insurance that state laws typically require, and let you know why those coverages might not be enough to protect you when something goes wrong.
Liability insurance—the only coverage that most states require—comes in two varieties. Bodily injury (BI) coverage pays for personal injuries suffered by others (including pedestrians) in an accident that's your fault. Property damage (PD) coverage pays for losses to vehicles and other property in a wreck you cause. Note, importantly, that these coverages don't pay you for your personal injuries or property damages.
Most states require minimum BI coverage of around $20,000 to $25,000 for injuries to one person and $40,000 to $50,000 for injuries to all persons. In addition, a minimum PD coverage requirement of between $25,000 and $50,000 per accident is typical.
These coverage amounts won't go very far if you cause an accident that results in moderate to severe injuries or property damages. Keep in mind that you're on the hook for all damages you cause, whether you have insurance or not. Having enough coverage might be all that stands between you and financial disaster.
Collision insurance pays to repair or replace your vehicle if it's damaged in a wreck. This coverage is a type of no-fault insurance, meaning it will pay even if you caused the accident. While the policy language varies, most often collision coverage applies if you collide with another vehicle or a stationary object, or if your car rolls over. But it might not cover vehicle damage that results from hitting an animal.
As a rule, collision coverage pays up to the actual cash value of your car, less your deductible. You can buy replacement cost coverage, but it'll cost you more.
States don't require that you buy collision coverage. But your lender almost certainly will require it if you finance a car purchase with a loan or a lease.
As a rule, comprehensive insurance pays for non-collision damages to your vehicle resulting from things like a falling tree branch, fire, a hail storm, or theft. Additionally, if your car gets damaged or destroyed in a collision with an animal, comprehensive coverage usually will pay to repair or replace it.
As with collision insurance, standard comprehensive coverage typically only pays for the actual cash value of your vehicle, but you can buy replacement cost coverage for an additional premium. Your new car lender or lessor will require that you have comprehensive coverage for the life of your loan or lease.
While most states require minimum amounts of auto liability insurance, many drivers go without it. And lots of drivers who buy liability insurance only get the minimum required by state law. What happens if you're in an accident with an uninsured or underinsured at-fault driver?
The answer is that you might find yourself without compensation for your personal injuries or property damage unless you buy uninsured (UM) or underinsured motorist (UIM) insurance. In a nutshell, these coverages take the place of the at-fault driver's missing or inadequate liability insurance and will pay for your personal injuries and property damages up to your policy limits.
Only a few states require drivers to buy UM coverage. Those that do usually mandate low coverage limits, identical to whatever the state requires for liability insurance. The good news is that you can buy more UM and UIM coverage. The bad news, of course, is that higher coverage comes with a higher premium.
Personal injury protection (PIP), also known as no-fault car insurance, is required in every no-fault state and is optional in several other states. PIP pays benefits to you and anyone else covered by your policy—usually family members and others riding in your vehicle who have no auto insurance of their own.
The amounts and kinds of benefits PIP pays vary widely from state to state. Typically, though, PIP covers at least some of your medical bills, lost wages, and the cost of household replacement services. Many states also require death benefits for surviving family members, as well as funeral and burial benefits.
As a kind of no-fault insurance, PIP pays even if you're to blame for the accident. In no-fault states that require PIP, the minimum coverage requirements vary from a few thousand dollars up to $50,000 or more.
As the name suggests, medical payments coverage (sometimes called MedPay), pays your medical expenses, as well as those of your passengers, up to the limits of your coverage. MedPay will pay even if you're to blame for the wreck. MedPay isn't required by state law, but it's a popular add-on coverage and it tends to be fairly inexpensive.
If your car is totaled before you pay off your car loan or lease, its actual cash value may be less than what you still owe on it. If that happens, you must pay the difference between the loan or lease balance and the actual cash value—the "gap" amount—to your lender. Gap coverage protects you by paying the gap amount
In general, the answer will depend on many factors, including:
For example, if a health insurance plan covers you and your family, you might not need PIP (unless you live in a no-fault state) or MedPay coverage. At least some of what PIP and MedPay take care of likely is covered by your health insurance policy. If you're insuring an older car that's not worth much, it might be more cost-effective to forego collision or comprehensive coverage.
Auto insurance is one of those things you tend not to think much about—until you need it. Unfortunately, by that point, it's likely to be too late. If you cause a wreck and you don't have enough liability or other coverage, you can't add it after the fact. Act now, before the worst happens. Speak to your attorney or your insurance agent about the kinds and amounts of insurance that are best for you.