AUGUSTA, Maine — Snowmobile owners would have to buy liability insurance under a measure before lawmakers, legislation spurred by accidents where snowmobile operators caused injury, property damage or both.
“I have heard from people about some accidents where people have been hurt and people have raised this concern with me,” said Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, sponsor of the measure. “Snowmobiles are becoming bigger and faster and more and more like cars and they can cause a great deal of damage, and the issue is trying to make sure people are protected.”
He said that requiring insurance will protect not only those who may be injured or have property damaged by snowmobiles, but also the owner of a snowmobile from a lawsuit. He said if a person is found to have caused injury or damage, their assets could be subject to a lawsuit if they have no insurance.
“Having insurance would protect them from a lawsuit,” he said. “This is a benefit to everybody and could save someone from financial ruin.”
Sen. Rod Whittemore, R-Skowhegan, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Insurance and Financial Services Committee, said the proposal sounds like common sense to him. He said he will not decide whether to support the bill until he has heard testimony at the public hearing this week.
“I want to hear the arguments on this,” he said, “but it certainly sounds like a good idea.”
But Bob Meyer, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, said it wasn’t a good idea a few years ago when it was first proposed and it still is not a good idea.
“Our position is basically that we certainly encourage people to carry liability coverage,” he said. “I can tell you the association owns two snowmobiles and they are very well-covered with liability insurance.”
But, Myer said, a law mandating coverage is almost impossible to enforce. He said the problems faced with the mandate on auto insurance are multiplied by coverage of seasonal vehicles such as snowmobiles.
“We have heard of the stories of people buying the coverage to register their vehicle and going in the next day to cancel the insurance,” he said.
“On a policy like the one you would have on a snowmobile, the insurance premium would not even cover the cost of processing of people buying and then canceling and then buying insurance again,” he added.
He said insurance companies opposed a similar bill in a past session because they would lose money, not because of claims, but because of the high processing cost. He said another concern is that the registering agents, either the state itself or the scores of municipalities and stores that are agents throughout the state, would object to the additional work with no compensation.
“It puts registration agents in the position of being enforcement people,” Myer said, “because somebody is going to have to ask to see the insurance card or other proof of insurance.”
He said the agents are both small businesses and town and city clerks and likely will want more to handle registrations. It currently costs $41 a year for residents and $89 a year for nonresidents to register a snowmobile.
Whittemore also questioned why the bill was focused on just snowmobiles when ATVs are also becoming more powerful and faster. And some are registered to travel on roads.
“It would seem to me we should look at the whole issue of recreational vehicles, not just one type of them,” he said.
Bartlett said he had not thought of the issue in that way. He agreed that liability insurance on ATVs was worthy of consideration, even though they are not covered in his legislation.
“Once a bill is in the committee’s hands, they can change it as they wish and hopefully make it better,” he said.
Meyer said he agreed with Whittemore that if lawmakers were going to mandate insurance coverage for one type of recreational vehicle they should take a look at all. He doesn’t think either type of vehicle needs to have coverage mandated.
He estimates that when the registrations are tallied this year there will be about 91,000 snowmobiles registered in the state. A request to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for the latest registration numbers for both snowmobiles and ATVs went unanswered last week.