Affordable car coverage remains elusive

Too many people with good driving records in low-to-moderate-income households can’t find affordable car insurance, according to a new report from the Consumer Federation of America, which called on state and federal regulators to step in.

The association of consumer groups based in Washington, D.C., reviewed annual premiums for state-mandated liability coverage offered by the five largest auto insurers — State Farm, Allstate, Geico, Farmers and Progressive — in 50 regions of the country.

It found that in roughly one-third of the nation’s lower-income ZIP codes, minimum coverage for motorists with a clean driving record was not available from any of the insurers for under $500 per year.

Quotes did not include comprehensive and collision coverage, which is not mandatory.

“Our research raises important questions as to whether state-mandated auto insurance is priced fairly and is affordable for many lower-income Americans,” said Tom Feltner, the consumer federation’s director of financial services.

In about half of the regions studied, there was at least one low-to-moderate-income ZIP code where every major insurer charged more than $500. In nine of the 50 areas, prices exceeded $500 in all of the lower-income ZIP codes.

Feltner noted that motorists who don’t do a good job of comparison shopping may be paying more because they are unaware of which company is offering the lowest prices.

People who finance their vehicles — which is the case with about two-fifths of lower-income drivers — must buy collision and comprehensive coverage as well as liability insurance, further driving up costs, he said.

“For most Americans, access to the best job for which one is qualified requires ownership of a car,” the report said.

“High insurance premiums act to deny these Americans economic opportunity and also help explain why so many lower income Americans drive without insurance,” Feltner said.

It’s estimated that around 15 percent of motorists are uninsured, with more than half of those drivers coming from low-to-moderate-income households, said Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the federation.

Hunter said consumers can save money by going to their state insurance department’s website to identify insurers offering the lowest prices in certain ZIP codes for sample motorists. In addition, consumers should check complaint histories with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, www.naic.org.

“Find the (insurers) with the lowest prices and complaint ratios, and call those and get a quote,” Hunter said.

Among other recommendations, the federation urged states to consider adopting nonsubsidized, low-cost insurance programs for lower-income drivers with good records.

“California has offered this type of coverage to good lower income drivers for between $226 and $338 a year — a quarter to a third of the average premium currently charged in a low-to-moderate income ZIP code,” the report said.

The CFA’s report is available at www.ConsumerFed.org.

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