Beau Scott of Brigantine is outraged. He has a right to be.

Scott abided by New Jersey law and bought car insurance - only to learn, the hard way, that there are motorists on the road who don't have to get liability insurance for their vehicles, who are essentially exempt from the law.

One of those drivers hit Scott's parked car, leaving Scott and his insurance company to pay the tab.

That's unfair. And the state ought to end - or change - the well-meaning but misguided program that has allowed it to happen.

As reported by Special Projects Writer John Froonjian, there are about 22,000 New Jersey drivers insured under a Special Automobile Insurance Policy, or SAIP - touted as "dollar-a-day" policies, since they cost drivers $365 per year. These policies, which are only offered to qualifying low-income residents on Medicaid, pay only for serious accident injuries to the driver and a death benefit. They pay nothing to the person who is hit. For that person, there is no difference between being hit by a driver insured under SAIP and being hit by an uninsured driver - except one is on the road legally and the other is not.

The SAIP program began under Gov. James E. McGreevey in 2003. It occurred at the same time the state was cracking down on uninsured drivers by impounding vehicles - which drew protests that some people could not afford insurance and couldn't get to work without a car. The idea of SAIP was to give certain low-income people a way to drive legally.

It's a noble idea, but simply exempting these drivers from the law is unfair and offensive - especially to the legal drivers like Scott and others, who are left with steep bills they shouldn't have to pay. If the state is going to mandate liability insurance, no one should be exempt. Frankly, if mandatory, comprehensive car insurance isn't meant to cover the damage that a driver does to others, what's the point?

There are bare-bones insurance policies available that can sell for as little as $50 over the cost of a dollar-a-day policy, according to the state Department of Banking and Insurance. At least those policies pay as much as $5,000 in property-damage liability coverage per accident. They adhere to the law. Yet the number of people buying those policies has fallen since the SAIP program was started, from about 25,000 in 2004 to 19,850 last year.

Not surprisingly, the number of SAIP drivers has risen to 22,000. That 22,000 is still a statistically small number, but it is significant to people who are hit by an SAIP driver.

Unfortunately, there is a bill in the Legislature that would actually expand the program to participants in a number of other programs for low-income people, potentially opening it up to hundreds of thousands of drivers.

That bill is headed in precisely the wrong direction. Instead, the state should end the SAIP program or change it to require some minimal liability coverage. Of course, any liability coverage would likely push the cost a little beyond the snappy "dollar-a-day" name of the program. But it would be fair - and would ensure no one is exempt from state law.

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