insurance

Putting the brakes on road rage costs

Road rage
Highlights
  • There's a difference between aggressive driving and road rage.
  • Insurance is meant to cover stupidity and accidents, not intentional acts.
  • Flying off the handle can prove far more costly than fixing a fender.

Most of us shrug off road rage as merely the blustery byproduct of congested highways, electronic driver distractions and the frenetic pace of modern life.

But should push come to bumper-nudge, out-and-out fisticuffs or even Mad Max-style auto demolition, road rage could wreak some serious havoc on your car insurance.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration draws a distinction between aggressive driving and road rage. Aggressive driving is dangerous on-the-road behavior such as speeding, tailgating, weaving and running stop signs or red lights. Road rage involves angry or violent behaviors at the extreme end of the aggressive-driving spectrum.

A criminal offense

The difference: Aggressive driving typically results in a traffic offense; road rage, beyond the yelling and gesturing stage, can escalate into a criminal offense.

Cross that line, and your car insurance may not follow you.

"Generally, insurance is designed to cover accidents and our own stupidity, not intentional acts," says Michael Randles, president of Insurance Center Associates of San Pedro, Calif. "Most policies have an exclusion for intentional acts with regard to property damage and bodily injury."

Flying off the handle and voiding your insurance can prove far more costly than fixing a fender.

"A dent might only be a couple (of) thousand dollars out of pocket, but the bodily injury you cause can be much higher. It could involve paying for their hospitalization, time off of work, pain and suffering; the whole thing," says Randles.

It's all in the intent

That said, not all intentions are necessarily bad -- or excluded. "If you were intentionally speeding and ran into somebody, that's covered," says Randles. "But if you intentionally rear-end or sideswipe somebody because you're mad, that's not going to be covered."

Michael Barry of the Insurance Information Institute says the gray area surrounding road rage accidents makes auto insurers particularly nervous.

"Usually there is not a cop who witnesses the whole series of events that lead up to that road rage accident," he says. "Even if you have a couple of witnesses, it can be tougher to nail down than a drunk driver in a way, because the cops carry a breathalyzer. The events leading up to road rage accidents are often more in dispute in terms of who cut off whom."

So what's likely to happen if you engage in road rage?

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"What we've seen happen is, the insurance company is probably going to defend you, but under a reservation of rights," says Randles. "That is, if you are found guilty of road rage or aggressive driving, the carrier is not going to be required to pay."

Don't get mad in California

In California, where extreme road rage is treated as felony assault with a deadly weapon, punishable by up to four years in prison, a $10,000 fine and driver's license suspension, insurance may be the least of your worries.

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