Next time you are commuting to work, taking the kids to school, or out running a few errands in the family car, carefully look around you at all the other vehicles on the streets and highways in your part of Oklahoma. Then consider the fact that statistics suggest one in every four of those motorists with whom you share the road is driving without insurance.

Although carrying insurance on your vehicle is mandatory in this state, Oklahoma’s percentage of uninsured motorists is among the highest in the nation, presently tied for third-worst with Florida and Tennessee at 24 percent, according to statistics released this week by the Insurance Research Council. Only Mississippi (28 percent) and New Mexico (26 percent) have a greater percentage of uninsured drivers than Oklahoma. As a result, purchasing auto insurance in Oklahoma is more expensive than it is almost anywhere else in the country. The average auto insurance policy in Oklahoma costs $1,869.39 per year according to a study released last week by Quadrant Information Services, third-highest nationwide behind Louisiana ($2,510.87) and Michigan ($2,098.29).

If you’re alarmed by those statistics, trust me, you aren’t alone. When I campaigned for Insurance Commissioner last year, I knew that addressing Oklahoma’s uninsured motorist problem must be one of my first orders of business if elected. When I assumed office at the Oklahoma Insurance Department in January, I formed an Uninsured Motorist Task Force co-chaired by Deputy Commissioners Mike Thompson and Denise Engle, who will bring to the table insurance regulators from my agency, experts from the insurance industry, consumer advocates, and members of law enforcement. This panel’s meetings have begun, opinions, data and ideas are being collected, and I intend for this task force to produce effective, enforceable solutions that shrink Oklahoma’s bloated percentage of uninsured motorists, reducing the cost of insurance for those drivers who are responsible and who do purchase auto insurance.

In the meantime, I urge all Oklahomans who drive to abide by state law and purchase mandatory liability insurance. Every motorist in Oklahoma is required to carry a minimum of $25,000 in coverage for the injury or death of one person, $50,000 for the injury or death of two or more persons, and $25,000 in coverage for property damage. This minimal amount of insurance won’t pay to repair or replace your car in the event of an accident, but it is the responsible and necessary thing to do in order to safeguard the life, health and financial investment of your fellow motorists should you be at fault in a collision. It is the very least you can do in exchange for the privilege of driving in the state of Oklahoma – and driving is a privilege, not a right.

Even if you are among those responsible motorists who do purchase at least the minimum amount of auto insurance, it would be wise to consider protecting yourself better from the one in four motorists on Oklahoma’s highways who are not abiding by our state’s mandatory insurance laws.

If you are still making monthly payments on your vehicle, chances are you are required to carry insurance coverage for your auto, as well – not just liability insurance, but collision insurance that will repair or replace your car after a crash and comprehensive insurance covering other losses such as hail, flood or fire. Requiring you to carry these policies protects the investment of your lender, which hasn’t yet been paid in full for the vehicle.

But you typically won’t be required to carry uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage.

Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage does not repair or replace your vehicle due to damages suffered in a collision with a vehicle that is driven by someone without sufficient insurance; your collision policy already covers that. Rather, uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage pays for medical care – or provides compensation for the loss of life – suffered by you or by passengers in your vehicle as the result of a collision involving a driver who has not fulfilled his obligation to buy insurance or whose minimal liability limits have been exhausted before your losses have been made whole.

Adding uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage to the automotive policy you already carry can cost less per day than buying a convenience store cup of coffee on your way to work. But the protection could save you from paying out-of-pocket for significant medical bills, or could compensate your family in the event you are fatally injured in an accident involving an uninsured or underinsured motorist.

Finally, while some financial advisors recommend that you drop your auto coverage down to liability-only once you’ve paid off that car loan, with one in four Oklahoma drivers being uninsured you might want to think twice before cancelling your collision coverage. You could be the safest of drivers and expect that the other motorist’s policy will repair or replace your car in the event you are involved in a crash caused by someone else. But with so many uninsured motorists on Oklahoma’s streets and highways, without collision insurance there’s a significant chance that you could find yourself paying the entire cost to repair or replace your vehicle, even after an accident that wasn’t your fault.

Talk with your auto policy agent to be sure that the coverage you carry is sufficient for your family and financial situation. If you have more questions about insurance, need to locate a licensed agent, or have complaints about your coverage, call the Oklahoma Insurance Department’s Consumer Hotline at 1-800-522-0071 or visit us online at www.ok.gov/oid/.