Pandemic Driving Is Still Down, but Will Insurers Grant More Relief?

When Americans abruptly cut back on driving early in the pandemic, many auto insurance companies gave customers credits or refunds on their premiums, reflecting the lower risk of accidents with fewer cars on the road.

Now consumer advocates say insurers should give drivers another break, since driving habits haven’t returned to normal and insurers have continued to reap the benefits of fewer accident claims.

“People have been driving significantly less,” said Teresa Murray, director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Consumer Watchdog office.

An analysis from the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that even though driving rebounded after steep drops in the spring, the overall number of miles driven has generally stayed below normal.

A separate report on accident data from four states, published last week by the Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Economic Justice, found that car crashes remained “well below” 2019 levels.

The groups examined state accident data from Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts and Texas, comparing March through October with the same period in 2019. The study found about 181,000 fewer accidents, including 83,000 fewer after May, when most insurers stopped providing refunds. (California, the report noted, ordered insurers to provide premium relief through the summer.)

“That’s extraordinary,” Doug Heller, an insurance expert with the consumer federation, said of the drop in accidents.

The two groups sent letters to state insurance commissioners, urging them to require another round of refunds. The groups didn’t specify an amount, but their report suggests refunds should be proportionate to a company’s reduction in claims, with an adjustment for expenses.

The letter notes that some insurers have been reporting significant increases in profits from their auto insurance business, at least in part because of fewer auto crash claims during the pandemic. Progressive, for instance, noted in its third-quarter regulatory filing that its underwriting profit — income from premiums after claims and expenses are paid — rose 66 percent for the quarter and 44 percent for the first nine months of 2020 “primarily” because of “lower auto accident frequency” than in 2019.

In the spring, Progressive said it had given customers premium credits of 20 percent for April and May, a payout totaling about $1 billion. Asked about a possible second refund, a company spokesman, Ronald F. Davis, said in an email that Progressive had lowered auto rates in more than 40 states from April through December and would “continue to monitor our driving and claims data to determine where additional actions are warranted.”

Insurers over all have returned about $14 billion to auto customers because people are driving less, said James Lynch, chief actuary and senior vice president of research and education at the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group. The industry has been flexible about working with strapped customers on payments during the pandemic, he said, and has contributed $280 million to charitable endeavors related to the coronavirus.

The insurance industry has had a challenging year in other ways, Mr. Lynch said, with significant claims related to hurricanes and wildfires. Yet, he said, “the industry has done as much to help people out as anyone.”

Robert Passmore, a claims expert at the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, said in an email that insurers had been responding to the change in driving patterns. An industry auto premium index was down 7 percent in October and 6 percent in November, reflecting “decreases in response to the falloff in claim frequency,” he said.

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That means that “in general, personal auto rates are lower than they were a year ago,” Mr. Passmore added.

Insurance relief offered in the spring typically “shaved” 15 to 25 percent off customers’ premium payments for one or more months, according to a report in October from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, a group of state regulators.

But a report published by U.S. PIRG’s Education Fund affiliate, examining relief given by the 10 top insurers in each state, found that most hadn’t given customers more than half of one month’s premium. “Over all, they were pretty stingy,” Ms. Murray said.

Relief varied by state and insurer, but in many states, State Farm, GEICO and USAA provided “better” relief than their competitors, the report found.

State Farm, for instance, gave policy credits averaging 25 percent for about two and a half months — close to the 30 percent suggested by the Consumer Federation at the time — and reduced rates an average of 11 percent. GEICO gave 15 percent off entire policies renewed or purchased from April 8 to Oct. 7. USAA gave a 20 percent credit for March through May and 10 percent in June and July.

The pandemic was an unprecedented situation, Mr. Heller said, and the spring payments from insurers were welcome. But he said companies should provide further relief to consumers, who are struggling economically in the pandemic.

It’s unclear whether insurers, or regulators, will act. While insurers have reported a decrease in the frequency of accidents over all, they have noted an increase in more severe, costlier accidents, possibly related to significant increases in speeding, the commissioners’ association noted.

“N.A.I.C. members expect companies to respond to changes in data, but not to overreact when the scope and duration of current impacts are not yet fully known,” the commissioners’ report said.

The Insurance Information Institute noted that many factors besides miles driven and accidents affected company claims and costs, including natural disasters like wildfires and floods.

State Farm announced on Dec. 11 that it would adjust rates upon policy renewal, beginning in January, because “our data indicates more people are driving, resulting in more auto claims.”

Even so, “auto rates remain below pre-Covid 19 levels,” the company said. “Our approach is to make incremental adjustments based on driving behaviors to help minimize the impact to customers.”

Here are some questions and answers about auto insurance rates:

What if I am not sure that I received a credit in the spring?

Drivers who didn’t get a check should look at their billing statements to see if they received the relief their insurer promised, consumer advocates say. If it’s unclear, or if you can’t find your bill, contact your insurance agent or the company directly.

Can I ask for a review of my premium if I’m driving less because of the pandemic?

Yes. Several insurers said they encouraged drivers to contact them for a policy review if their driving habits had changed drastically. It’s helpful to have specific details about the change, such as the distance you would be driving to work if you were still working at the office rather than at home.

The average cost of car insurance is $1,548 a year, or $129 a month, according to the Zebra, an auto rate website. Rates vary, however, because of factors like your age and driving history and where you live.

How else can I reduce my auto insurance premium?

One option is to raise your deductible, the amount that you pay toward a claim paid by your insurer. (If you need $1,000 in repairs and your deductible is $500, your insurer will write you a check for $500.) A higher deductible will save you money on monthly premiums, but it means you’ll pay more out of pocket for repairs if you have an accident.

Some insurers are also offering “usage based” insurance, also known as telematics, in which you agree to have a device in your car to track your driving habits. This may be a less expensive option — but some people are skeptical because of privacy concerns.

You can also shop around to see if a competing insurer will offer you a better rate. Just be sure not to cancel your current policy before activating a new one, so you won’t have a gap in coverage, Mr. Heller advised.

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