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News Opinion Editorial

Help for city drivers

Each year, Allstate Insurance Co. issues a report on the "best drivers" in the nation, and each year, Baltimore drivers fare poorly. The good news is that the company's 2013 ranking has Baltimore moving up to No. 193. The bad news is that they only looked at 194 cities.

That's right, only nearby Washington, D.C. is regarded by the insurer as being home to worse drivers. And what did Allstate consider when making its rankings? It's how often accident claims were filed by drivers living in the nation's most populous cities. In Baltimore, that was one accident claim per driver every 5.4 years, or 86.1 percent more often than the national average.

There are probably any number of explanations for this, from the relatively high traffic congestion of the Baltimore-Washington area (the survey's top city was traffic-light Fort Collins, Colo.) to higher costs of auto repairs (which might trigger claims). But it is probably not because of any fundamental differences in driver behavior or aggressiveness — at least not in a survey that has New York City (Number 172) rated higher.

But rather than lamenting bad drivers or a high cost of living, this ought to be a wake-up call to a serious problem too easily overlooked: Baltimore's high automobile insurance rates. Nowhere in Maryland will a resident pay more to drive a car than in Charm City.

That's made pretty clear by the latest rate survey from the Maryland Insurance Administration that shows no matter a driver's circumstance — good record or bad, young or old, male or female — living in Baltimore will cost them more. Allstate charges a 23-year-old city man living in the 21218 ZIP Code more than $400 in premiums more than one living over the line in Anne Arundel County in the 21401 zone. The same driver pays $300 more than one living in Baltimore County's 21117 ZIP Code under GEICO, according to the MIA.

And those are some of the smaller differences. It's pretty clear Keystone Insurance doesn't want a lot of city customers, because that company's price for a 23-year-old female driver living in the 21218 ZIP Code is more than double her Anne Arundel 21401 equivalent — a nearly $2,000 difference. Unitrin Auto & Home bests that with a $2,286 higher city premium for that same driver over her Anne Arundel double.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake may be correct to target the city's high property tax rate as a disincentive to living in Baltimore, but surely high auto insurance rates aren't far behind. For commuters who lease their home, the high cost of auto insurance is probably a more daunting problem than the landlord's tax bill — and can be one totaling thousands of dollars.

It's fair to judge drivers on their record, on how much they drive and what kind of car they own, on their driving habits and a host of information that goes into an insurer's algorithm. But where you live (so-called territorial rating) shouldn't be so big a factor, not when the social cost — helping to empty the city of its middle-class families — is so great.

Yet no Maryland governor has tackled this vexing problem in any serious way since Parris Glendening held the job more than a decade ago. Gov. Martin O'Malley, if he can pull himself away from his current self-promotional tour, ought to make it part of his last legislative agenda when the state legislature reconvenes in four months.

There are any number of reforms that could help drivers with their car insurance costs. The General Assembly approved an important one last year by giving the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, the state's insurer of last resort, the ability to charge customers on an installment plan, saving some as much as $250 a year.

Other potential changes might be to eliminate personal injury protection (or PIP) that pays lost wages and medical bills after an accident. With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and expansion of health insurance coverage, there should soon be fewer low-income drivers without the means to pay medical bills.

Doing more to crack down on fraudulent claims would be helpful as unscrupulous lawyers and shady health care providers continue to churn out outlandish claims of soft-tissue injuries that are highly profitable for them and difficult to disprove. Creating a one-stop shopping place online so Marylanders could compare auto insurance rates would be helpful as well.

Granted, this is a difficult issue that often pits two well-funded special interests, lawyers and insurance companies, against each other. And there's a perception that anything that lowers rates in the city can't be good for suburban insurance customers. But ultimately, nobody wins if the deck is stacked against Baltimore drivers, especially the good ones who always have the option of driving straight out of town.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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