AUTO INSURANCE BASICS
What is auto insurance?
Auto insurance protects you against financial loss if you have an accident. It is a contract between you and the insurance company. You agree to pay the premium and the insurance company agrees to pay your losses as defined in your policy. Auto insurance provides property, liability and medical coverage:
- Property coverage pays for damage to or theft of your car.
- Liability coverage pays for your legal responsibility to others for bodily injury or property damage.
- Medical coverage pays for the cost of treating injuries, rehabilitation and sometimes lost wages and funeral expenses.
An auto insurance policy is comprised of six different kinds of coverage. Most states require you to buy some, but not all, of these coverages. If you’re financing a car, your lender may also have requirements. Most auto policies are for six months to a year. Your insurance company should notify you by mail when it’s time to renew the policy and to pay your premium.
What is covered by a basic auto policy?
Your auto policy may include six coverages. Each coverage is priced separately.
• Bodily Injury Liability
This coverage applies to injuries that you, the designated driver or policyholder, cause to someone else. You and family members listed on the policy are also covered when driving someone else’s car with their permission.
It’s very important to have enough liability insurance, because if you are involved in a serious accident, you may be sued for a large sum of money. Definitely consider buying more than the state-required minimum to protect assets such as your home and savings.
• Medical Payments or Personal Injury Protection (PIP)
This coverage pays for the treatment of injuries to the driver and passengers of the policyholder’s car. At its broadest, PIP can cover medical payments, lost wages and the cost of replacing services normally performed by someone injured in an auto accident. It may also cover funeral costs.
• Property Damage Liability
This coverage pays for damage you (or someone driving the car with your permission) may cause to someone else’s property. Usually, this means damage to someone else’s car, but it also includes damage to lamp posts, telephone poles, fences, buildings or other structures your car hit.
This coverage pays for damage to your car resulting from a collision with another car, object or as a result of flipping over. It also covers damage caused by potholes. Collision coverage is generally sold with a deductible of $250 to $1,000—the higher your deductible, the lower your premium. Even if you are at fault for the accident, your collision coverage will reimburse you for the costs of repairing your car, minus the deductible. If you’re not at fault, your insurance company may try to recover the amount they paid you from the other driver’s insurance company. If they are successful, you’ll also be reimbursed for the deductible.
This coverage reimburses you for loss due to theft or damage caused by something other than a collision with another car or object, such as fire, falling objects, missiles, explosion, earthquake, windstorm, hail, flood, vandalism, riot, or contact with animals such as birds or deer.
Comprehensive insurance is usually sold with a $100 to $300 deductible, though you may want to opt for a higher deductible as a way of lowering your premium.
Comprehensive insurance will also reimburse you if your windshield is cracked or shattered. Some companies offer glass coverage with or without a deductible.
• Uninsured and Underinsured Motorist Coverage
This coverage will reimburse you, a member of your family, or a designated driver if one of you is hit by an uninsured or hit-and-run driver.
Underinsured motorist coverage comes into play when an at-fault driver has insufficient insurance to pay for your total loss. This coverage will also protect you if you are hit as a pedestrian.
CAN I DRIVE LEGALLY WITHOUT INSURANCE?
NO! Almost every state requires you to have auto liability insurance. All states also have financial responsibility laws. This means that even in a state that does not require liability insurance; you need to have sufficient assets to pay claims if you cause an accident. If you don’t have enough assets, you must purchase at least the state minimum amount of insurance. But insurance exists to protect your assets. Trying to see how little you can get by with can be very shortsighted and dangerous. The insurance industry and consumer groups generally recommend a minimum of $100,000 of bodily injury protection per person and $300,000 per accident since accidents may cost far more than the minimum limits mandated by most states.
If you’ve financed your car, your lender may require comprehensive and collision insurance as part of the loan agreement.
WHAT IF I LEASE A CAR?
If you lease a car, you still need to buy your own auto insurance policy. The auto dealer or bank that is financing the car will require you to buy collision and comprehensive coverage. You’ll need to buy these coverages in addition to the others that may be mandatory in your state, such as auto liability insurance.
- Collision covers the damage to the car from an accident with another automobile or object.
- Comprehensive covers a loss that is caused by something other than a collision with another car or object, such as a fire or theft or collision with a deer.
The leasing company may also require “gap” insurance. This refers to the fact that if you have an accident and your leased car is damaged beyond repair or “totaled,” there’s likely to be a difference between the amount that you still owe the auto dealer and the check you’ll get from your insurance company. That’s because the insurance company’s check is based on the car’s actual cash value which takes into account depreciation. The difference between the two amounts is known as the “gap.”
On a leased car, the cost of gap insurance is generally rolled into the lease payments. You don’t actually buy a gap policy. Generally, the auto dealer buys a master policy from an insurance company to cover all the cars it leases and charges you for a “gap waiver.” This means that if your leased car is totaled, you won’t have to pay the dealer the gap amount. Check with the auto dealer when leasing your car.
If you have an auto loan rather than a lease, you may want to buy gap insurance to protect yourself from having to come up with the gap amount if your car is totaled before you’ve finished paying for it. Ask your insurance agent about gap insurance or search the Internet. Gap insurance may not be available in some states.
DO I NEED SEPARATE RENTAL CAR INSURANCE?
Properly insuring a rental car can be confusing, frustrating and downright daunting. Unfortunately, many consumers do not even think about car rental insurance until they get to the counter, which can result in costly mistakes—either wasting money by purchasing unnecessary coverage or having dangerous gaps in coverage.
Before renting a car, the I.I.I. suggests that you make two phone calls—one to your insurance agent or company representative and another to the credit card company you will be using to pay for the rental car.
- Insurance Company
Find out how much coverage you currently have on your own car. In most cases, whatever coverage and deductibles you have on your own car would apply when you rent a car, providing you are using the car for recreation and not for business.If you have dropped either comprehensive or collision on your own car as a way to reduce costs, you will not be covered if your rental car is stolen or damaged in an accident.Check to see whether your insurance company pays for administrative fees, loss of use or towing charges. Some companies may provide an insurance rider to cover some of these costs, which would make it less expensive than purchasing coverage through the rental car company. Keep in mind, however, that in most states diminished value is not covered by insurers.
- Credit Card Company
Insurance benefits offered by credit card companies differ by both the company and/or the bank that issues the card, as well as by the level of credit card used. For instance, a platinum card may offer more insurance coverage than a gold card.Credit cards usually cover only damage to or loss of the rented vehicle, not for other cars, personal belongings or the property of others. There may be no personal liability coverage for bodily injury or death claims. Some credit card companies will provide coverage for towing, but many may not provide for diminished value or administrative fees. Some credit card companies have changed their policies, too, so you may not have as much coverage as you thought.To know exactly what type of insurance you have, call the toll-free number on the back of the card you will be using to rent the car. If you are depending on a credit card for insurance protection, ask the credit card company or bank to send you their coverage information in writing. In most cases, credit card benefits are secondary to either your personal insurance protection or the insurance offered by the rental car company.If you have more than one credit card, consider calling each one to see which offers the best insurance protection.
At the Rental Car Counter
Since insurance is state regulated, the cost and coverage will vary from state to state. Consumers, however, can generally choose from the following coverages:
Loss Damage Waiver (LDW)
Also referred to as a collision damage waiver outside the U.S., an LDW is not technically an insurance product. LDWs do, however, relieve or “waive” renters of financial responsibility if their rental car is damaged or stolen. In most cases, waivers also provide coverage for “loss of use,” in the event the rental car company charges the renter for the time a damaged car cannot be used because it is being fixed. It may also cover towing and administrative fees.
Waivers, however, may become void if the accident was caused by speeding, driving on unpaved roads or driving while intoxicated. If you already have comprehensive and collision coverage on your own car, check with your personal auto insurer to make sure you are not duplicating coverage you already have. Should you decide it is necessary, this coverage generally costs between $9 and $19 a day.
By law, rental companies must provide the state required amount of liability insurance. Generally, these amounts are low and do not provide much protection. If you have adequate amounts of liability protection on your own car, you may consider forgoing additional liability protection. If you want the supplemental insurance, it will cost between $7 and $14 a day.
An umbrella liability policy, however, may be more cost-effective. Umbrella liability insurance is so named because it acts like an umbrella, sitting on top of your auto and homeowners (or renters) liability policies to provide extra protection including accidents while driving your own car or one that you rent. These policies, usually sold in increments of a million dollars, cost as little as $200 to $300 annually for a million dollars worth of coverage and another $50 to $100 for each additional million.
Those who do not own their own car and are frequent car renters, can also consider purchasing a non-owner liability policy. This not only provides liability protection when you rent a car, but also when you borrow someone else’s car.
Personal Accident Insurance
Personal Accident Insurance offers coverage to you and your passengers for medical and ambulance bills for injuries caused in a car crash. If you have adequate health insurance or are covered by personal injury protection under your own car insurance, you may not need this additional insurance. It usually costs about $1 to $5 a day.
Personal Effects Coverage
Personal Effects Coverage provides insurance protection for the theft of items in your car. If you have a homeowners or renters insurance policy that includes off-premises theft coverage, you are generally covered for theft of your belongings away from home, minus the deductible. If you purchase this coverage through the rental car company, it generally costs between $1 and $4 a day.
If you frequently travel with expensive items such as jewelry, cameras, musical equipment or sports equipment, it may be more cost-effective to purchase a personal articles floater under your homeowners or renters insurance policy. With such a floater, your valuable items are protected at home as well as while traveling anywhere in the world and the coverage is broader.
Other Things to Consider
States have minimum age requirements for renting a car and most major rental car companies refuse to rent a car to someone who is under 21 and in some cases under 25. In addition, some rental car companies now investigate your driving record and/or credit history so check with the rental car company before picking up the car.
If you are planning to rent a car abroad, contact both your insurance agent and travel agent to find out what you need to do to be properly insured. Those driving a rental car from the U.S. into Mexico may find it progressively more difficult to rent a car as U.S. rental car companies are increasingly concerned about the rising crime rates in that country. The minimum required insurance coverage to drive in Mexico is civil liability insurance which covers you in case you cause injury or damage. Your American liability insurance is not valid in Mexico for bodily injury, though some American insurance policies will cover you for physical damage—check with your agent or insurance company representative. You can also buy Mexican car insurance in several American border towns; there are generally several storefronts selling Mexican car insurance near the border.
Note: If you’re renting a car abroad, you may need an international driver’s license.
IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CANCELLATION AND NONRENEWAL?
There is a big difference between an insurance company canceling a policy and choosing not to renew it. Insurance companies cannot cancel a policy that has been in force for more than 60 days except when:
You fail to pay the premium
You have committed fraud or made serious misrepresentations on your application
Your driver’s license has been revoked or suspended.
Nonrenewal is a different matter. Either you or your insurance company can decide not to renew the policy when it expires. Depending on the state you live in, your insurance company must give you a certain number of days notice and explain the reason for not renewing before it drops your policy. If you think the reason is unfair or want a further explanation, call the insurance company’s consumer affairs division. If you don’t get a satisfactory explanation, call your state insurance department.
The company may have decided to drop that particular line of insurance or to write fewer policies where you live, so the nonrenewal decision may not be because of something you did. On the other hand, if you did do something that raised the insurance company’s risk considerably, like driving drunk, the premium may rise or you may not have your policy renewed.
If your insurance company did not renew your policy, you will not necessarily be charged a higher premium at another insurance company.
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