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Drink and drive? No insurance cover even if you're under the limit

Man in road accident passes breathalyser test but insurance company refuses to pay out

It was the eve of Chinese New Year and Mr Wayne Poh drank three glasses of beer in his office.

Three hours later, his Mitsubishi Lancer was involved in a collision with another vehicle at the junction of Grange Road and Tanglin Road at around 8.45pm on Jan 29.

The police took him back to Traffic Police Headquarters in Ubi for a breathalyser test.

The test showed that he was under the legal limit, so Mr Poh was released, much to his relief. The police told him that he would not face any drink-driving charges.

But, when the 29-year-old finance manager filed a claim over the accident with his motor insurer, DirectAsia Insurance, it refused to pay.

Mr Poh said that DirectAsia's claim officer had told him that he was not covered under his policy because he had consumed alcohol before the accident.

"The exact language from them was along the lines of 'even if you drink just a drop, we will reject'," he said, adding that he was "utterly amazed and disappointed" that the insurer did not even bother investigating his case.

Mr Poh felt that a blanket ban on insurance claims just because a driver had a sip of alcohol was unreasonable.

He sent The New Paper a copy of his breathalyser test result, which showed that he had 32mcg of alcohol in 100ml of breath - just below the legal limit of 35mcg of alcohol in 100ml of breath.

Mr Poh has filed a complaint with the Financial Industry Disputes Resolution Centre (Fidrec), which deals with disputes between financial institutions and consumers, saying the insurer had rejected his claims even without conducting an investigation.

He is also seeking legal recourse.

INSURER SAYS

According to DirectAsia's policy details, the company does not cover loss or damage to vehicles or claims against drivers if they "had a percentage of alcohol in their breath, blood or urine which in our sole opinion impaired their ability to control or drive a car".

A spokesman for DirectAsia.com said: "We wish to state the policy exclusion on driving under the influence of alcohol is a common exclusion in motor policies, and is also an exclusion in DirectAsia.com's policy wording."

She declined to comment further as it could become a legal matter.

Two insurance agents contacted by TNP said such clauses are common in motor insurance, and insurers had the sole discretion to decide whether to honour a claim or not.

When contacted, the General Insurance Association of Singapore (GIA) declined to comment apart from advising all motorists to be familiar with the terms and conditions of their motor insurance policies and the exclusions.

In a forum letter to The Straits Times in 2005, the then executive director of the GIA, Mr Wu Siong Yen, wrote: "In Singapore, the motor insurance policy does not cover the driver while he is driving under the influence of alcohol.

"Furthermore, all motor insurance policies carry policy exclusions for driving under the influence of alcohol."


We wish to state the policy exclusion on driving under the influence of alcohol is a common exclusion in motor policies, and is also an exclusion in DirectAsia.com's policy wording.

- A spokesman for DirectAsia.com

The exact language from them was along the lines of 'even if you drink just a drop, we will reject'.

- Mr Wayne Poh

Always read the fine print

THE LEGAL VIEW

Motor insurance policies clearly state that it is up to the insurers whether a claimant who had drunk alcohol before driving should be allowed to make a claim, say lawyers.

However, they feel that such a blanket exclusion does not make sense as the legal limit for drink driving is already of the strictest standard.

Mr Satwant Singh, who has handled many motor accident claims, said it was "very unfair to impose such standards that basically conflict with the laws of Singapore".

Another lawyer, Mr Sunil Sudheesan, said: "Insurance companies only want to cover those who don't drink alcohol. The message that they want to send is, don't drink and drive."

The lawyers said those who buy insurance should read the terms and conditions in the policy carefully.

Mr Goh E Pei of law firm Ang & Partners - which specialises in shipping and insurance - said that customers should "always be aware of the fine print" before buying any policy.

"When buying insurance, they should also look at what circumstances the insurance company can repudiate or reject their claims. It's important that the buyers know what they can or cannot do in order to have their claims honoured."

THE MEDICAL VIEW

The effects of alcohol on a person's body can vary widely, depending on factors such as the person's gender and size.

Peak alcohol level occurs between 30 and 60 minutes after ingestion, said Dr Desmond Wai, a liver and gastrointestinal diseases expert who has a clinic in Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre.

He said that studies have shown that even after drinking one can of beer, a person's driving ability could be impaired.

"There is, however, a range of impairment among different individuals with the same alcohol dosage, so it can be hard to predict," he said.

Dr Wai added that his advice is to not drive at all if one intends to drink - even if in small amounts.

"A person will not know his or her limit," he said.

The doctor added that if a person is detected to have alcohol in his blood and is involved in an accident, the accident may be assumed to have been caused by his alcohol drinking.

THE MOTORING VIEW

Mr David Ting, editor of motoring magazine Torque, said that he is aware of the no-alcohol fine print in insurance clauses.

"The police can still press charges if your blood alcohol content is below the limit but you are found to be unable to control your vehicle. Likewise, I think it is fair that the insurance companies have the right to refuse payout to anyone who has drunk any alcohol."