Alaska Driving Law - Basic Concepts

Alaska’s “Rules of the Road” for non-commercial drivers are found in our Alaskan Administrative Code, Title 13, Chapter 2. It is worth a quick read. You might be surprised to learn some of our rules. Since the police know them all, and expect you to know them as well - learn them.

Below, we summarize Alaska’s most important legal rules and concepts - related to driving motor vehicles. We include a bit of editorializing as we go, so bear with us. A lot of this material is found in the “SlowdownAlaska Quiz.” Read it carefully:

1. Criminal versus Civil Sanctions: People confuse "criminal" sanctions with "civil" sanctions. It’s understandable since many situations involve both civil and criminal issues. For example, you can be “negligent” in causing a wreck, and also face a “negligent driving” ticket. Your “negligence” makes you civilly accountable for the other person’s injuries/damages (Read: You're going to write a check.) The “negligent driving” ticket is criminal - six points against your driver’s license.

The primary distinction between civil and criminal issues is the result. In civil situations, we argue over money: "What are the damages" and “Who owes money to whom?” In criminal situations we argue over punishment: points on a ticket or jail time for more serious offenses.

Remember, civil “negligence” does not make a person “bad.” A person who is just not paying close enough attention, who slides through an intersection, is “negligent” and will write a check for the other person's damages. At the same time, this might be a genuinely decent person - who should NOT go to jail (Jail is where we send “bad” people). This is why an “accident” does not send most folks to jail. Instead, it holds them civilly accountable for the damages they caused through negligence. Keep this distinction in mind: Negligence is stupidity - Crimes involve trying to hurt people.

2. “Damages” in car wreck cases (“What’s my claim worth?”): When a person is injured in a car wreck caused by the other person’s negligence/stupidity he/she is entitled to the following “damages” that must be paid by the accountable person or his/her insurance company:

A. Medical Bills;
B. Lost Wages; and
C. Pain/suffering/disability.

In most cases, medical bills and lost wages are pretty easy to calculate. The only challenge is quantifying “future” medical bills and “future” lost wages. Normally, doctors opine about the injured person’s future medical needs and related costs. Vocational specialists opine about how the injuries affect the victim’s employment income. Be assured that the insurance company will hire a "testifying doctor" to tell the jury that the injured person "will be just fine in a few months." Insurance company testifying doctors say that in EVERY case. It's how they get paid by insurance companies. Juries must listen to all of the evidence and come to a fair number.

Challenges arise when a jury wrestles with determining how much compensation to give an injured person for the biggest loss of them all: Pain/suffering/disability.

Of course, “the bigger the injury, the more it’s worth.” At the same time, just how do jurors figure out how much an injury is worth? The law provides a framework. It's called the objective, "Reasonable Person" standard. Jurors should ask: "What would an objection, Reasonable Person give to avoid these injuries?" It's that simple. The answer to this simple question is the number the jurors should write on the verdict form. The pain/suffering/disability verdict is normally many times the injured person's medical bills and lost wages. After all, a man/woman doesn't live to work … rather, he/she works to live. That's an important distinction. Time spent at work is our least valuable time. That's why overtime pay is 150% of regular pay.

Many injuries leave victims with the same work schedule to pay his/her bills and support his/her family. At the same time, injuries usually take away the joy that the victim had before the wreck. After eight hours of work, most injured people are too beat up to enjoy their family/friends/recration. That joy is worth a lot of money, especially if the injury will last for the rest of the victim's life.

Some attorneys use statistical programs to estimate an injury's value. Jury Verdict Research (JVR) is one such company. It uses hundreds of thousands of related cases and factors to predict a claim's value. While it is helpful, the most important part of valuing any claim is whether the injured person is decent and likeable. Statistically, JVR demonstrates that pain/suffering/disability claims are worth many times the medical/wage claims. And of course, being likeable is important. If the jury doesn't like the victim, he/she won't get much justice - at least not in Alaska.

3. The Ticket Doesn't Matter: Many people believe that whomever got the "ticket" is at fault. The truth is that while the police officer's opinion is important, it is not considered under Alaskan civil law. Our court system does not fall lock-step behind police officers. Instead, we take their opinion into account - and at the same time realize that they have to do their jobs quickly, and oftentimes without the benefit of a full investigation. In fact, the "ticket" is not admissible for any purpose. The judge won't let the jury hear about who was ticketed. It is technically worthless in civil cases. The judge won't even let the jury hear about who has insurance. The insurance companies got this rule passed decades ago - to ensure that juries don't award full damages, instead being sympathetic to the person at fault. Many insurance companies tell their at-fault clients to "dress down" for trial to look poor for the jury...

Instead, the court will let you (the jury) hear about what witnesses saw and heard. The court will also let the attorneys hire "experts" to opine about how the wreck occurred, and who violated the laws, or acted "negligently." You (the jury) will then get to decide on your own who should be accountable for for injuries/damages/losses to the injured person.

In other words, don't worry about "who got the ticket." The police do a great job, but are sometimes simply wrong about who is at fault. And, that makes sense: Police are busy. They usually don't have time to fully investigate. They do their best while at the scene - with an eye toward public safety.

4. "Full Coverage" Insurance Is Hogwash: Many folks come into our offices, confident that their insurance will handle the wreck because they bought "full coverage." They are saddened to learn that "full coverage" is a myth. All “full coverage” means is that you have "some" of each type of insurance - usually very little of each type.

Alaskan law allows insurers to sell but 50/100 of liability and Uninsured / Underinsured Motorist insurance, and call it "full coverage." Geico does this all the time. Don't fall into that trap. Buy the amounts of insurance we recommend, or more if you insurance agent suggests it.

5. Splitting The Blame: Alaskan law (AS 09.17.080) provide for true fault apportionment. In other words, when a wreck involves two or more people, 100% of the fault is divided between them, in any amounts. It can be split 50/50. It can be split 99/1, or anyway in between. The jury makes the final determination of how to apportion fault. The jury then applies the fault of the party to the damages he/she caused. For example, if you were 25% at fault, and caused $100,000 of damages, the verdict against you would be $25,000.

6. Litigation or Arbitration?: When another person negligently hurts you, you have a claim against him/her. That claim usually settles/resolves with the other person's insurance company. If their insurer won't make a fair offer, a lawsuit is filed - and a jury determines what amount is fair. This is called litigation.

At the same time, when you are hurt by an uninsured motorist, your own UM insurance policy kicks in to cover you. In those instances, when your own insurer tries to give you less than you are entitled to, you usually have to arbitrate your claim. Arbitration is quicker than litigation and in Alaska, usually better for you. It is a private proceeding that can cost a bit of money, but it usually works out well. Most personal injury attorneys are equally adept at handling litigation (lawsuits) and arbitration (private proceedings). IMPORTANT: Many insurance companies are moving away from arbitration - opting instead to force their own insureds (you) into litigation - a formal lawsuit - to collect UM insurance benefits. We think this tactic is reprehensible. Insurers should provide for arbitration of UM disputes pursuant to AS 21.89.035.

7. You're Insured By Driving: Most Alaska auto insurance policies cover a particular vehicle. Any "permissive driver" of that vehicle enjoys the insurance coverage. Note that Uninsured / Underinsured Motorist coverage is different. It normally also covers the person who bought it, his/her spouse, his/her family members living in the same household; and other occupants. Remember, if you are hurt in a wreck while you are a passenger, you are entitled to not only the car's insurance, but also your own U/UIM insurance. Oddly, most insurance companies never mention this law to their insureds…