Finally, fair car insurance rates

Marketplace Staff Aug 24, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Car insurance is sort of like airline tickets. You never quite know why you’re paying the price you’re paying. For just one example, if you’ve ever moved from a small town to a big city you might have noticed your premiums went through the roof. Where you live determines what you pay because many insurance companies set their premiums by ZIP code. That’s changing out here in California. And commentator and consumer advocate Jamie Court says it’s high time.

JAMIE COURT: Living on the wrong side of Los Angeles, say the south side, can cost you $500 more for your auto insurance.

I’m talking 50 percent more for insurance then someone else living on the tony ocean cliffs of Palos Verdes might pay.

That’s because insurers want to sell policies to some communities and not to others where they think people have little money and bad credit ratings.

And it turns out that the premiums tend to be a lot higher in communities where there happen to be more African Americans and Latinos.

Plans filed by California insurers with state regulators will finally change all that.

What will count most is a driver’s safety record, then the number of miles a motorist drives. Not their ZIP code.

You see, 18 years ago California voters passed a ballot measure to force insurers to charge motorists based on how they drive, not where they live.

There’s no good reason drivers on one side of a ZIP code line should be paying hundreds of dollars more than drivers living on the other.

Plenty of good drivers live in poor neighborhoods. And they’ve never had an accident.

But insurers stonewalled. Finally, California insurance commissioner John Garamendi said no more. Other state insurance regulators are watching and may soon follow.

Insurers claim urban motorists are more prone to accidents because of crowded streets. The truth is most states, like California, require only those at fault in an accident to pay.

It doesn’t matter how busy your ZIP code is, so long as you’re a good driver and never hit anyone.

Maybe the best reason for deemphasizing ZIP-code is it helps everyone.

The more good drivers in a so-called bad ZIP code who can afford insurance, the more you are protected on the road against being hit by uninsured motorists, and the cheaper auto insurance becomes all the way around.

Even on the cliffs of Palos Verdes.

RYSSDAL: Jamie Court is the president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

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