In addition to D.C.’s insurance requirements, the city has a number of other insurance and traffic laws that make it unique.
Most states have what are known as at-fault insurance laws, which means the driver who causes an accident is responsible for the cost of all damages and injuries. Each driver’s liability insurance will pay for those losses up to their insurance limit.
In other states, known as no-fault states, each driver carries PIP coverage, which pays for their medical expenses after an accident, regardless of which driver is at fault. However, the at-fault driver is still responsible for all property damage.
Washington, D.C., is unique in that it has an at-fault system with no-fault characteristics. All insurance companies must offer their customers PIP, though drivers don’t have to accept it. And if there’s an accident, an injured driver can choose to have their own insurance cover their injuries or pursue civil action against the at-fault party.
If the injured driver has PIP, they can recover damages from the at-fault party only in certain situations, including if there’s substantial permanent damage or if their medical expenses exceed their PIP limit.4 This is a normal feature in no-fault states.
One of the factors that determines how much you can recover after an accident is the state’s (or, in this case, the city’s) negligence laws. The options are comparative, contributory, or a modified version of either of those.
D.C. is one of the few places in the country that has a pure contributory negligence law, which means a victim’s ability to recover damages depends on whether they had any fault at all. If a driver is in any way responsible for an accident — even if the other driver is primarily at fault — they won’t be able to recover damages.
As we mentioned earlier, D.C. requires drivers to carry two different types of uninsured motorist coverage: one to cover injuries and the other to cover property damage. These coverages will kick in if you’re in an accident where the at-fault driver doesn’t have the required liability coverage.
D.C.’s uninsured motorist law doesn’t allow stacking, which means the coverage limit isn’t multiplied by the number of vehicles in a policy. For example, if you have two vehicles that each have $25,000 per person of uninsured motorist bodily injury coverage, that’s all the protection you have in an accident. You can’t stack the two policies together to get $50,000 of liability coverage.
The reason D.C. and some states require uninsured motorist coverage is the high rate of uninsured drivers. As of 2019, more than 19 percent of the city’s drivers didn’t have the required liability insurance, meaning if they caused an accident, the other driver may not otherwise be able to recover their losses.5
In D.C., anyone convicted of driving under the influence will face license suspension for a period of two to 90 days. Drivers also have to install ignition interlock devices on their vehicles for six months on a first offense, one year on a second offense, and two years on a third or subsequent offense. Finally, drivers could face mandatory jail time ranging from five to 15 days depending on their blood alcohol concentration at the time of the arrests.
A DUI in D.C. will remain on your driving record for 15 years, during which time it can result in higher insurance premiums.
Seat Belt Laws
Washington, D.C., requires all drivers and passengers to wear seat belts in moving vehicles. The city’s seat belt requirement is a primary law, which means you can be pulled over and ticketed for just that reason. Meanwhile, in states with secondary seat belt laws, drivers can receive tickets for not wearing seat belts only if they were pulled over for another violation.
Distracted Driving Laws
In D.C., it’s illegal to use a cell phone while driving. The city bans texting and driving, as well as any use of handheld devices. However, drivers can talk on the phone using Bluetooth technology.
The fine for using a cell phone while driving in D.C. is $100. If a first-time offender proves that they’ve purchased a hands-free accessory to talk on the phone, their fine can be suspended. However, this suspension doesn’t apply to texting violations.
Teen Driver Laws
D.C. law requires drivers to be at least 16 years old before they can obtain a learner’s permit and 17 years old before they can get their driver’s license.
While someone has their learner’s permit, they can’t drive alone and must have a driver in the car who is at least 21 years old with a valid driver’s license. They are also limited to driving between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.
Once a driver turns 17 and has had their learner’s permit for at least six months, they’re eligible for their provisional license. With this license, they can drive with one other passenger in the car who is at least 21 years old and has a valid driver’s license. Drivers can also drive with any number of immediate family members.
Once again, provisional license holders can drive during certain hours only, but they are expanded to 6 a.m. to midnight during the summer and on weekends, and 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weeknights during the school year.
Once someone has had their provisional license for at least six months and has had no moving violations during the past year, they’re eligible to get their full driver’s license.6
Statute of Limitations for Claims
Washington, D.C., has a statute of limitations of three years for both bodily injury and property damage claims. If a driver sustains damages in an accident and doesn’t file a claim before the statute has expired, they won’t be able to recover damages.7
Cancellation/Non-Renewal Notification Laws
Cancellation is when a car insurance company ends an insurance agreement before the policy has ended. In most cases, it must have a legitimate reason to do so. In Washington, D.C., insurance companies can cancel a driver’s policy without notice within the first 60 days. If they cancel after 60 days have passed, they have to give the driver at least 30 days’ notice, but if the cancellation is because the driver hasn’t paid their premiums, they can give just 15 days’ notice.8
An insurance company also has to give notice if it decides not to renew a policy. For most nonrenewals, an insurance company must give at least 30 days’ notice. But again, in the case of nonpayment, it can give just 15 days’ notice.
Some states allow drivers to self-insure for auto insurance instead of buying policies through insurance companies. In D.C., any person can qualify to self-insure if they own at least 25 vehicles and get a certificate of self-insurance from the mayor. As a result, it is usually organizations rather than individuals that are eligible for self-insurance.
Car Inspection Requirements
To register a car in Washington, D.C., a driver must pass a vehicle inspection and obtain an inspection sticker from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to display on their vehicle. The type of inspection depends on the type of vehicle, whether it’s a personal, commercial, or for-hire vehicle. For personal vehicles, the inspection includes an emissions test through the onboard diagnostics port, a tailpipe test, a visual catalyst inspection, and a gas cap test. These are some of the criteria an inspector looks for:
- Correct air-to-fuel mixture in the tailpipe
- Correct ignition timing
- Present and effective catalytic converter
- Working oxygen sensor
- Clean air filter
- Functioning check-engine light
- Present and functioning diagnostic connector
- Present gas cap with no leaks
The vehicle inspection fee is just $10 for four years for a new, privately owned vehicle, and $35 every two years after that. A driver can have their inspection done at this address:
Department of Motor Vehicles Inspection Station
1001 Half St. SW
Washington, DC 20024
If you’ve been convicted of a DUI or another serious driving offense in Washington, D.C., you may be required to obtain an SR-22, an insurance form that proves you have liability insurance. Most drivers with SR-22s must maintain them for three years. Keep in mind that having an SR-22 will most likely increase your insurance rates.
Drivers in D.C. need SR-22s after the following violations:
- Driving without insurance
- Driving under the influence
- Driving recklessly
- Refusing a breathalyzer
- Committing repeated traffic violations
- Causing accidents that result in injuries or death
A defensive driving course teaches safe driving techniques and how to avoid accidents. Some states require these courses after an accident or another violation.
D.C. doesn’t require defensive driving courses for anyone in particular. However, it does recommend signing a loved one up for a course if you question their ability to drive safely. The good news is that some insurance companies offer discounts to drivers who have taken defensive driving courses.
Serious Injury and Monetary Thresholds
As we mentioned in our section on no-fault insurance, D.C. has a unique law that allows drivers to choose whether they want to operate under at-fault or no-fault insurance laws. If a driver chooses to operate under no-fault laws and purchase PIP, they may be limited in the situations where they can recover damages from at-fault drivers.
First, a victim must have substantial permanent scarring or disfigurement, or have an impairment that makes it difficult for them to complete many daily activities. The cost of their medical bills and rehabilitation must also exceed the coverage limits of their PIP in order for them to file a civil suit.
Accident Reporting Requirements
If a driver is in a car accident in D.C., they must report it within five days if there is at least $250 of damage.
You might be surprised to learn that insurance companies can charge more for insurance based on certain personal characteristics. It’s common for insurance companies to consider someone’s driving history and other factors when setting insurance rates. But in most states and D.C., they can also consider gender.
You may have heard the argument that women pay less for car insurance because they tend to have fewer accidents. It’s true that men pay more for car insurance in many states, but women actually pay more in Washington, D.C.9
Another factor that insurance companies in most states can take into account is a driver’s credit score. Studies have found that drivers with poor credit are more likely to file insurance claims. As a result, many insurance companies charge those drivers higher premiums, which is legal in D.C.
When Is a Car Declared a Total Loss?
If you’re in an accident and your car sustains major damage, your insurance company may declare it a total loss. In general, this means the vehicle can’t be repaired safely or the cost of repairs would exceed the value of the vehicle.
What’s considered a total loss varies by location and insurance company. In Washington, D.C., a car is a total loss when the damages reach 75 percent of its estimated value.