Class action lawsuits filed in Nevada last month against 10 auto insurers are more likely to hurt policyholders than help them.
The suits contend that discounts, rebates, and policyholder dividends provided in 2020 – amounting to about $14 billion nationally – were not “meaningful” and that the rates charged violate state law against excessive premiums. The $14 billion figure does not include the more than $280 million in philanthropic contributions the industry has also made during COVID-19 to support communities.
The fact is, auto insurance premium rates fell nationally in 2020 for the first time in a decade. Insurers’ net income after taxes fell 26.1 percent through the third quarter of 2020, compared with the same quarter the previous year. A major factor was the pandemic-related discounts granted in 2020.
“The rate is lower because people are driving less,” said Triple-I chief actuary James Lynch, noting that during a lockdown period in the spring driving was down as much as 50 percent. Fewer cars on the road should lead to fewer accidents, and this expectation is what led insurers to proactively provide discounts and other policyholder benefits during the pandemic. Many auto insurers have built these discounts into premium rates for 2021, Lynch said.
Accidents down, fatalities up
Accidents did decline in 2020; unfortunately, traffic fatalities and claims increased. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), fatalities rose 4.6 percent in the first nine months of 2020, despite overall vehicle miles traveled having decreased. Fatalities in the third quarter of 2020 were 13 percent higher than in the same period of 2019 – the largest such increase in more than a decade. This suggests that driver behavior deteriorated rapidly and significantly during the pandemic.
The 2020 premium reduction would have even been larger, Lynch said, “if people had slowed down.”
Claims rising faster than premiums
Even before COVID-19, auto damage claims were rising faster than general inflation, and auto insurance premium increases trailed inflation. Fatalities had been declining as cars became safer – but safety technology is expensive, making repairs more costly and driving up the size of policyholder claims.
The 2020 trend of increasing fatalities could worsen as traffic volume returns to pre-COVID levels. Data show that many motorists who substantially increased their driving speed when traffic was 50 percent below normal have not slowed down as traffic increased, Lynch said.
“The concern is that frequency patterns will return to the norm, but fast driving will keep claim severity high, putting upward pressure on rates,” Lynch said.
The salient point is this: Insurers have kept their promises to pay claims, given $14 billion back to policyholders, and generously supported communities through philanthropy – even as rising accident severity during the pandemic dented their net incomes. Defending themselves against frivolous litigation will only add to their expenses, and lower premiums are unlikely to be the result.