Consumer advocates call for cheaper auto insurance for low-income residents in Maryland

Automobile insurance in Baltimore and other cities across the country is prohibitively expensive for low-income drivers, particularly those who have financed a vehicle, according to a report released Monday by the Consumer Federation of America.

Variations in rates charged by insurers based on factors unrelated to driving — including where they live, their credit score, their education level and their occupation — also make it more difficult for less affluent city residents to afford coverage, the group said.


"High auto insurance premiums represent a huge barrier to car ownership, and economic opportunity, for millions of lower-income Americans," said Stephen Brobeck, the group's executive director, in a statement.

J. Robert Hunter, the group's insurance director, said the issue can hamper cities' efforts to grow. As an example, he described a Baltimore resident struggling to hold a job in the surrounding suburbs.


"The people living downtown have no way to get there, even if they use three or four buses," Hunter said. "The biggest obstacle is car ownership."

The problem is well-known in Maryland, where studies by the Insurance Research Council have put the rate of uninsured motorists above 12 percent — among the highest along the East Coast and accounting for some 400,000 vehicles, according to Kent Krabbe, executive director of the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, an independent state agency that provides insurance policies to state residents who can't afford private coverage.

Even with MAIF's cheaper rates, many drivers were forced to drop their insurance after the 2008 recession began, Krabbe said. Since then, the number of people with MAIF policies has dropped from about 70,000 to about 38,600, he said.

"We are still working our way out of the recession as a community, and the lower you are on the economic spectrum, the harder it is and the longer it takes," Krabbe said. "When you're prioritizing the things you need to stay alive, car insurance is way down the list. You need to buy food for your kids, you need to keep your home heated, you need to put gas in your car."

The Insurance Information Institute, an industry-funded think tank, issued a statement Monday in response to the CFA report, saying auto insurance "is increasing in both affordability and availability." It said costs have risen below the rate of inflation, that the percentage of uninsured motorists is dropping, and that market competition is strong.

"All drivers — low-income and otherwise — benefit from a robust insurance marketplace where they can shop for the best policy at a competitive price, irrespective of how they pay for that vehicle," said Robert Hartwig, the institute's president, in the statement.

Michael Barry, an institute spokesman, said insurers establish rates based on risk and in accordance with state laws. If city residents pay more, he said, it's likely because they are at greater risk of getting into an accident in which claims are filed, or of having their vehicle stolen or vandalized.

"They're always looking for actuarial links between certain types of policy holders and potential events," Barry said of the providers. "They're trying to price the policies to reflect the risk, and the auto insurance industry has access to a lot of data in the same way a lot of businesses do with respect to potential customers."

Critics counter that the insurer's risk assessment practices burden low-income drivers while prioritizing those with higher incomes.

Meanwhile, the number of uninsured drivers in the state makes insurance more expensive for everyone, in part through the need for insured drivers to purchase uninsured motorist protection.

A state task force is scheduled to provide a report to the General Assembly on the issue by 2016.

Al Redmer, recently appointed Maryland Insurance Administration commissioner by Gov. Larry Hogan, helped intiate a review of the affordability issue during his last stint as commissioner under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and said it will be something his agency looks at again under Hogan's administration.


"Folks being able to have access to insurance and the issue of affordability is something that is important, and something that we will review yet again," Redmer said. "It's a problem, and certainly worthy of further investigation."

The CFA study surveyed annual premium price quotes from five of the country's largest automobile insurance providers for a specific driver profile: a 30-year-old woman, with a high school degree and a job as a bank teller, who has never been in an accident and drives a financed 2004 Honda Civic.

People with financed vehicles are often required by their lenders to carry collision and comprehensive coverage in addition to the liability coverage required by most states, multiplying the cost of coverage. The CFA estimated there are about 8 million low- and moderate-income people financing vehicles nationwide.

In Maryland, the study looked at rates in Baltimore and Overlea in Baltimore County.

Nationwide, 50 percent of the surveyed quotes, for minimal liability and collision and comprehensive coverage, were above $1,500. In Maryland, they all were — and four out of five were more expensive for the hypothetical Baltimore resident than the Overlea resident.

The GEICO rate was the cheapest, at $1,569 for the Overlea woman and $1,825 for the Baltimore woman. The Farmers Insurance rate was the most expensive, at $3,068 for the Overlea woman and $3,660 for the Baltimore woman.

GEICO could not be reached for comment and Farmers referred a query to the Insurance Information Institute.

According to a June 2014 study by the Maryland Insurance Administration, every automobile insurance provider operating in Maryland uses drivers' place of residence as a factor in setting rates.

The state has considered the idea of banning place of residence as a criteria for setting insurance rates in the past, but has never adopted such a measure.


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