EXETER — It wasn’t unusual most mornings for Gary Zavacki to wake up to an empty, quiet house.
His wife, Jean, an early riser of the truest kind, often left the house for a brisk walk to the Wyoming Monument before the sun sprouted up. It was something she had done for more than 30 years. Only one early autumn morning two years ago, she never came home.
Just a few blocks away, a 20-year-old driver had fallen asleep at the wheel, lost control of her car and struck a tree. The car spun onto the sidewalk and struck Jean, 63, who suffered severe facial fractures and massive brain trauma.
Gary, upbeat and cheerful when we spoke this week, told me he got into his car that morning and drove Jean’s typical walking route, trying to track her down after he realized something seemed wrong. His fears were confirmed moments later.
He described the impact to Jean as a “glancing blow.” She was hit only from the nose up, he told me — a matter of inches from merely being a terrifyingly close call. A few inches higher and Jean is back on her route the next morning.
Only now, Jean can’t walk at all. The retired teacher that taught generations of students over the course of three decades at the Wyoming Area School District can’t speak. In fact, she can barely move. She is 100 percent dependent on caregivers for all of life’s functions, Gary told me.
The young driver, who didn’t face any charges from the wreck, was insured for the state minimum of auto insurance coverage: $15,000.
Jean’s medical bills and personal care costs total over $8,000 per month, Gary told me.
The compensation from the wreck that permanently debilitated his wife didn’t even support two months of her costs.
“I had the mistaken idea that because she was injured severely by a party who was 100 percent at fault that most of her care would be taken care of, only to find out that’s really not the way the world works,” Gary told me.
In Pennsylvania, the minimum for bodily injury in an automobile accident is $15,000 for one person and $30,000 for two or more people, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Attempts to raise the minimums over the years have failed.
Those benchmarks for minimum coverage rates were set in the early 1970s, when a gallon of gas cost 55 cents and the average household income hovered around $13,000. They’ve never been adjusted for inflation.
Gary told me he wanted to make people aware that commercials promising several million in compensation for similar wrecks wasn’t the norm. He said he was going to write to his local and state representatives and tell them to take a look at those outdated minimums. He urged others to do the same.
“If drivers want to operate motor vehicles they must be insured enough to compensate the injured at a level corresponding to their needs,” Gary said.
While most people struggle to come up with the money needed to pay their bills, it’s fair to scoff at the idea of petitioning government officials to force us to pay more for auto insurance. Times are tough and most people are strapped for cash.
But that coverage boost doesn’t only protect policy holders, it protects the rest of us, who at a moment’s notice could have our lives turned upside down by underinsured drivers.