Tragedy near the Bronx Zoo: Insurance lessons from a deadly car crash
When a serious crash makes the news – such as the one in April 2012 that killed seven family members on a highway near the Bronx Zoo – many drivers wonder: Could this happen to me?
Although the odds of being involved in a deadly accident are relatively low, experts say a crash like the one in New York City can remind drivers to get enough of the right insurance coverage and to put safety first.
“About two-thirds of all car crashes don’t involve injury, so the most common type of crash is a fender-bender with no injury,” says Carole Walker, executive director of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. “However, those catastrophic crashes do happen.”
Even though you’re much more likely to be involved in a small accident than a big one, experts say it pays to think about the what-ifs.
“You don’t have to scare yourself, but you should be thinking about what could happen and if you have the coverage you need,” Walker says.
Insurance for the worst-case scenario
Here are six tips on auto, health and life insurance coverage to protect yourself and your family in case of a what-if tragedy:
1. Carry enough auto insurance.
“Don’t cut corners,” Walker says. “Along with liability coverage, uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage is really a priority – and most people carry the same amount as for liability. If you’re in a crash with an uninsured motorist and you’re injured … the chance of you being able to get any money out of them to pay for your medical bills or fix your car is very slim.”
|The seven victims of the Bronx Zoo crash (clockwise from top left): Maria Nunez-Gonzalez and daughter Jazlyn, Marlyn Nunez-Rosario and mother Maria and sister Naily, and Jacob Nunez and wife Ana Julia.|
2. Get under an “umbrella.”
Consider an umbrella policy, which will give you liability coverage above the limits of your auto insurance policy, experts recommend. “You may think it’s too expensive, but a liability umbrella policy for your home and vehicle can give you that extra protection if you’re driving all the neighborhood kids around and you cause a crash,” Walker says.
3. Add medical coverage.
In some states, it’s optional to buy medical payments coverage as part of your auto insurance policy. The coverage typically can be purchased in per-person limits of $5,000, $10,000, or $25,000 – and sometimes higher – and covers up to that amount in medical bills for each person in your vehicle, says John Gaglione, a Farmers Insurance agent in Illinois.
Experts say this coverage makes sense even if you already have health insurance because it can pay the bills while you’re awaiting a settlement – if another driver was at fault – and it can protect your passengers.
“How would you feel if you’re taking your son or daughter and one of the kids down the street to a Little League game and you get into an accident and find out that child has no health insurance?” Gaglione says.
4. Save enough money to pay your health insurance deductible.
In addition to having health insurance with a reputable company, it’s a good idea to put aside enough money to cover your deductible, experts recommend.
“Today, it’s not uncommon to see $2,000, $5,000 or $10,000 deductibles,” Gaglione says. If a moderate-income person doesn’t have enough money in the bank to pay a deductible, “they’re going to be in a hard spot,” he says. Health insurers sometimes do not allow medical payments coverage from an auto insurer to be put toward a health insurance deductible.
5. Pass up specialized life insurance.
Burial insurance, credit card life insurance and mortgage life insurance are almost always a bad deal, says Tony Steuer, author of the book “Questions and Answers on Life Insurance.”
“There are all kinds of little gimmicks like that,” says Steuer, who says accidental death-and-dismemberment insurance is one of the worst buys.
Instead, he recommends buying adequate amounts of regular term life insurance for both spouses in a family – and tacking on enough to cover funeral costs and other expenses. Steuer says: “That way, you’re covered – you don’t have to guess how you’re going to die.”
6. Re-examine your life insurance coverage yearly.
“The problem with doing insurance planning is there are so many unforeseen changes that can tweak numbers one way or another. You’re always hitting a moving target, so try to do the best you can,” Steuer says.
Tragedy in the Bronx
On the afternoon of Sunday, April 29, Maria Nunez-Gonzalez was driving to a family gathering near her home with six passengers: her 10-year-old daughter; her parents, both in their 80s, who were visiting from the Dominican Republic; her sister; and two nieces, age 7 and 3. She was driving in the left lane of New York City’s Bronx River Parkway when her Honda Pilot SUV struck the middle barrier, then skidded across three lanes of traffic, hit a curb and flew over a guardrail – landing upside down in a wooded area at the edge of the Bronx Zoo. Everyone in the vehicle was killed.
A spokesman for AAA New York says a dangerous road likely contributed to the crash. “The roadway has got a lot of bad features – it’s got narrow lanes, it’s very twisty and hilly with blind curves and blind hills,” AAA spokesman Robert Sinclair says.
The Bronx River Parkway was built in 1925, before modern engineering emerged. Sinclair says the stretch of roadway where the crash occurred – which also has been the site of several other serious accidents – lacks a shoulder, has on- and off-ramps that are too short and features a pedestrian walkway protected by a rounded curb.
“Engineers say you don’t put curbs by the side of a high-speed roadway,” Sinclair says. “They can serve as a sort of launching pad, and that appears to be what happened.”
Staying safe on the road
While drivers sometimes must travel on treacherous roadways, experts say they can take steps to reduce the risk of – or the severity of – a crash.
First, it’s a good idea to choose a vehicle that handles well, says Sinclair, who test drives vehicles for AAA’s Car&Travel magazine.
“I always stress good handling, precise steering, good brakes,” Sinclair says. “A vehicle that holds the road well goes a long way to help mitigate bad factors on the roads.”
Russ Rader, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, recommends buying a vehicle that has earned good crash test ratings from the institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Crashes happen unexpectedly – so make sure you have the best protection,” Rader says.
Second, it’s important to obey posted speed limits even if other drivers are whizzing past you, experts say.
In fact, New York police said speed likely was a factor in the Bronx crash, as Nunez-Gonzalez was driving 68 miles per hour in a 50 mph zone.
“If you’re on an interstate highway and drivers around you are traveling above the posted speed limit, go into the slow lane. If people are still driving faster, they need to go around you,” says Jacob Nelson, director of traffic safety, advocacy and research at AAA. “Legally – even in the passing lane — you are not supposed to break the speed limit.”
Increased speed means increased risk, according to Rader.
“When you raise your speed, you’re increasing the likelihood of a crash because your ability to respond to an emergency, the amount of time you have to respond to an emergency, is less, and if a crash happens, it’s more severe,” Rader says.