The Big Issue: What Are Insurance Companies For?
Big Issue Cymru December 1998
If you've been following this column, you'll know that I used to live in a van. That was last year. I was researching for my book, which is about hippies, and I thought I should look the part. So I bought a van and lived in it. It was a Ford Transit Disability Transport Vehicle converted to a camper van. I went all over in that van, chasing hippies.
One day I stopped to pick up a hitch-hiker. It was on the A27 just outside Lewes, heading towards Brighton. I indicated and pulled over and then sat back to wait. And then it happened - some 15 to 20 seconds later - CRUNCH! Someone had hit me in the rear. Well you know the feeling. You pause to take a breath. Sigh. And then you get out resignedly to inspect the damage.
He'd bent the back panel and mashed my back lights, while his own bonnet was a crumpled mess. It looked like a geriatric bull dog who'd had his face kicked in. I took compensation from the fact that he'd damaged his own car far more than he'd damaged mine. I didn't want to start an argument, however. The other guy was visibly shaken. We exchanged Insurance details, and then I was on my way.
The hitch-hiker was only going a mile up the road. He said, "I bet you wish you hadn't stopped to pick me up now." But at least he could act as a witness.
That was only the beginning of my troubles. I was 3rd Party, Fire and Theft. I hadn't got Fully Comprehensive Insurance because I couldn't afford it.
I got home and contacted my Insurance company, who sent me an accident claim form, which I duly filled in and returned. After that I had to get estimates on the repairs. Every garage I took my van to said the same thing. "Tut, tut," they said. And then they made a "ssssssss" noise: the sound of air being sucked through the teeth. All mechanics say this. It's part of their private language. Normally it means, "how much can I do you for?" In my case it meant, "sorry mate, can't do anything." Not one garage would give me an estimate. It had something to do with the type of vehicle, you see. Mine was coach-built. Most garages didn't have the facilities to deal with it. I contacted my Insurance company again and they told me that we would have to proceed without the estimate.
After that it was a question of waiting. I waited. I waited for days and I waited for weeks. Still nothing was happening. I contacted my Insurance company again. It appeared that the other guy wasn't answering letters or returning calls. When they did eventually contact the driver, he had another story prepared. Apparently I'd swerved out, which is what had made him hit me in the rear. Which still begged the question, really, of why he wasn't watching what was happening in front of him.
The waiting continued. It was over a month and a half later. The other Insurance company were supposed to be sending out an Inspector to assess the damages. I contacted my Insurance company again, and they gave me the other Insurance company's telephone number. I rang them up.
A woman came on the line. She had that school-ma'am guardedness that petty officials wear in lieu of sympathy. She was talking to me as if it was all my fault. "I'm sorry," she said, after about a quarter of an hour, "we can't proceed without an estimate." At which point I lost my temper.
"I can't get an estimate," I told her. "I've already told you that. No one will give me an estimate. I've been waiting around for over a month on the assumption that we can proceed without an estimate."
"It's normal procedure," she said, "we can't proceed without an estimate.
"I was told that you would send an Inspector out to assess the damages, and then make a cash settlement."
"Who told you this?" she asked.
"My Insurance company."
"Well your Insurance company can't tell us how we should manage our procedures," she said. "We don't accept liability." And then she added, like some mantra of the bureaucratically insane, "we can't proceed without an estimate."
The law requires it
I managed to get an estimate in the end. I rang my Insurance company, who rang the other guy's Insurance company, who rang one of their own engineers, who rang their Inspector, who rang me. He'd managed to find the one garage in the whole of Britain which was actually capable of doing the work.
In the end, as was inevitable given the circumstances, the other guy admitted liability, and the work got done. I got a new set of rear doors and a new set of lights, and I was back on the road again. The whole process took about three months. Maybe I should have sued them for loss of earnings, given that I wasn't able to work in all that time. But, finally, I was just relieved that the work was done.
You take out Insurance - don't you? - not only because the Law requires it, but also because you think it might cover you in the event of an accident. What you don't realise at the time is that it is in the interests of all Insurance companies to keep you waiting and to not accept liability. That's their job. They take the money, but they don't like giving it back again. And meanwhile they hide behind bureaucratic repetition and a finicky attachment to detailed procedures to try and stave off the inevitable. Insurance companies are the ultimate in anally-retentive organisations, ripe for Psychoanalytic investigation. It's about time someone did a case-study.
As for hitch-hikers: it hasn't stopped me from picking them up. Not unless they look like Insurance Salesmen, that is. In which case, I might well just run them down instead.
The A27 just outside Lewes
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