How might the pandemic impact auto premiums over the long term? There are many factors at play
by Laura Adams
Stay-at-home mandates due to the COVID-19 pandemic have caused vehicles across the U.S. to sit in parking spots and garages much more than usual. Drivers are generally staying off the roads except for essential travel and occasional trips for food and household supplies.
Even short excursions can leave drivers wondering if the coronavirus got onboard and how to disinfect their vehicles properly.
It’s no surprise that the reduction in driving has resulted in fewer claims and higher profits for auto insurers. That’s why carriers are voluntarily stepping up with relief for their customers.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, auto insurers will be giving back a total of $10.5 billion in premiums and benefits. Policyholders will receive the paybacks in various forms — such as premium percentage discounts, credits, and added coverages — depending on their insurer.
How insurance companies manage the unprecedented social and economic disruption caused by the coronavirus will undoubtedly affect both their reputations and their customers’ finances. The expectation of lower auto rates, at least over the next two to three months, is undoubtedly a welcome surprise for consumers.
It’s too early to know precisely how the pandemic will affect auto premiums over the long term. Rates are likely to return to pre-coronavirus levels, but there are many factors at play, including the following.
Will policyholders continue to drive less?
Most insurers factor annual mileage into their rates. Just how much it affects premiums, however, varies by carrier and by state.
A record number of employees and self-employed workers have been working from home since early to mid-March, due to advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stop the spread of coronavirus. The remote work has been a cultural shift that may not wholly reverse once stay-at-home mandates lift.
Many workers and companies that have operated successfully during the pandemic with remote teams may be getting used to the work-from-home setup and extend it as a benefit. It may take time for the average office worker to feel comfortable settling back into a cubicle desk or an open-plan environment. By adjusting down their estimated annual mileage or enrolling in a pay-as-you-drive program, this segment of customers may see long-term premium reductions.
But for service workers or those looking for work, commutes and driving habits are likely to return to pre-coronavirus levels. These drivers may only enjoy temporary relief from their insurer, and see their rates return to normal within a few months.
As workers and the unemployed shelter in place due to coronavirus mandates, insurers report that vehicle accidents and claims are down significantly. When drivers are on the road for shorter periods and fewer miles, they have less exposure to accident risk.
We don’t know how long it will take for homebound individuals and families to return to typical commutes to work, school and social outings. Each state is likely to handle the reopening of businesses and grant permission for large gatherings in different ways.
Drivers’ fears of contracting COVID-19 at work and in social settings may be strong enough to reduce overall road traffic for many months. But once shelter-in-place policies subside, road traffic, auto insurance claim rates, and auto premiums should eventually return to normal.
To date, nearly 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance benefits during the pandemic. This number is likely to rise as new claimants get through overwhelmed state websites and call centers to submit applications successfully.
While some industries will return to normal quickly after the threat of the pandemic subsides, others may suffer for years to come. Less overall economic activity means that many drivers may not be able to make payments on auto loans, leases, or insurance. While creditors may extend temporary forbearances or other relief options for vehicle owners and lessees, it’s not likely to be a long-term solution.
If insurer revenues decline because unemployed policyholders can’t afford auto insurance, carriers may have to offset losses by increasing premiums. The actions of auto insurers may largely depend on whether states issue leniency regulations for insurers, such as holds on non-renewals for nonpayment, and for what length of time.
Will distracted driving get worse?
Another potential factor in the future of auto premiums is legislation and enforcement against the use of handheld devices while driving. According to the Insurance Information Institute, cellphone use is a factor in 14% of distraction-related fatal crashes. However, phone use is likely a more significant cause of auto accidents than estimated. Insurers will determine premiums by the frequency and cost of crashes they must cover.
Will natural disasters become more frequent?
Auto premiums have been on an upward trend due to devastating natural disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and floods. If insurers experience more record-breaking comprehensive claims and losses, it will cause them to increase premiums for policyholders who live in the most vulnerable states.
Will insurer portfolios be less profitable?
The current low-interest-rate environment means carriers will have reduced investment income for the foreseeable future. Insurers may hike premiums or eliminate coronavirus-related relief to remain profitable and maintain the policyholder surplus required by regulators.
‘The new normal’
Many factors influence the rates that auto insurers charge policyholders. Even with a sharp reduction of drivers on the road and claims submitted, the stay-at-home mandates are temporary. Accidents, damage, thefts and liability, should return to normal as the adverse effects of the pandemic gradually lift. Most policyholders will enjoy short-term savings but shouldn’t count on it lasting too far into the future.
Laura Adams ([email protected]) is a senior education and safety analyst for Aceable.com, a mobile-first education platform for certification and training courses, from driver’s education and defensive driving to real estate pre-license school.
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