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Don't let an uninsured driver dent your wallet

The roads are full of motorists without cover. Kate Hughes and Julian Knight report

Uninsured drivers are a menace stalking Britain's roads. Insurers say that up too one million people drive without insurance at any given time. That equates to roughly one in 20 motorists.

And despite moves by the police and the insurance industry to stamp it out, driving without insurance seems pervasive, cutting across social strata. In just the past fortnight, former England footballer John Barnes was found guilty of driving his sports car on the M6 without insurance.

But when you consider the punishment meted out to uninsured drivers, it's easy to see why so many decide to run the risk of getting caught. On average, uninsured drivers who are caught and found guilty receive a fine of just £185, the equivalent to only a few months' motor premiums.

Yet the damage wrought by uninsured drivers is costly, both in terms of cash and lives. Around 200 people a year are killed in accidents involving uninsured drivers. Research by insurer Zurich found that uninsured drivers are six times more likely to have an unroadworthy car, and 10 times more likely to drink and drive.

And the estimated costs of medical bills and compensating motorists whose cars are hit by uninsured drivers currently stands at £500m a year. "It's a huge expense to the industry. It adds around £40 a year on average to the premiums of honest motorists," said Malcolm Tarling from the Association of British Insurers.

But what happens if you're hit by an uninsured driver? "First thing to realise is if you have fully comprehensive insurance you should be OK, as you can claim from your insurer," Mr Tarling said.

The situation is less clear-cut for people who have third-party fire and theft cover. "These people will not be able to claim from their insurer. They will, though, be able to submit a claim to the Motor Insurers' Bureau's UK Guarantee Fund for bodily harm and damage to their vehicle," he said. However, there is a big caveat: you have to be certain that the other driver is uninsured. If you don't have the other driver's details, you may not be able to claim from the MIB.

So it is essential, say the big breakdown recovery firms such as RAC and AA, to take a note of the make, model and registration number of the other car or cars involved in an accident.

Started after the Second World War, the MIB has dolled out nearly £2bn in compensation so far, and the amount it pays out gets higher each year. It's meant to be a fund of last resort and it's far from perfect, as Samantha Parker, 38, from Swindon found out when she was hit by a stolen car in 2003.

"As I pulled away from lights on my way home from a friend's house, a car being chased by police came out of a one-way street and hit me, writing off my car. Obviously, the driver of the stolen car was uninsured, so my insurance would not cover me."

Ms Parker was left having to go to the MIB for help: "The claim took nearly a year to process and there was an automatic excess of £500. As a result, I only got back around £900 from my claim."

She was aided in her claim by the legal cover she had with her car insurance policy against which she was able to claim: "Being able to employ a solicitor took a lot of the hassle out of things. Legal cover only costs £20 to £30 a year, and it's really worth having."

Unfortunately, honest motorists can be left counting the cost of their brushes with uninsured drivers for years to come through higher premiums and policy excesses. "It can mean you lose your no-claims discount. It may be a good idea, therefore to take out protected no-claims, which costs roughly the equivalent of 10 per cent of your premium," Mr Tarling said.

Some insurers, though, are taking a more sympathetic approach to people hit by uninsured drivers. Direct Line, for instance, says it will not increase your excess or remove your no-claims discount if you're in a collision with an uninsured driver.