Insurers, Regulators Find Auto Claims Spike As Gas Prices Fall

NU Online News Service, Nov. 10, 11:52 a.m. EST

Auto insurance claim frequency is rising, in some cases precipitously, as gasoline prices have declined from the high levels seen in 2008, according to regulators and two large insurers.

"We have seen some disturbing increases" said Anne Kelly, casualty actuary for the New York State Department of Insurance.

She said that from the combined effect of frequency and severity of claims for personal injury protection no-fault coverage, her agency has "been seeing increases pushing towards 10 percent annually."

Her information, she said, comes from second-quarter data from the Fast Track Monitoring system--which, while not including data from all carriers, "we think is a pretty reliable benchmark."

The PIP coverage, she noted, is where costs are going up the fastest, but such increases are not the case for all automotive lines.

Claim frequency increases have also been noted at The Hartford. Last week, in answer to an analyst's question, Juan Andrade, president and chief operating officer for property and casualty operations at the insurer, said that "what we are seeing is an uptick in auto frequency, particularly in auto liability..."

Mr. Andrade said the upswing was "clearly driven by an increase in miles driven as gas prices have become more normalized."

In the third quarter of 2008, he noted, "gas prices were significantly higher. Miles driven came down precipitously and now we are starting to see them come back up."

The frequency increase, however, will probably not be a consistent pattern throughout the nation, and insurers will be impacted differently depending on where their books of business are located, according to Robert P. Hartwig, the president of the Insurance Information Institute in New York.

Mr. Hartwig, an economist, said that unquestionably people are driving more these days--a trend helped by relatively stable gas prices and an economy that is beginning to recover.

Since reaching a high in July 2008, when gasoline in some places was selling at $4 per gallon, the price level for regular in most states has now dropped below $3.

Mr. Hartwig noted that in 2008, when miles driven and claim frequency declined, there was the dual shock of the record fuel cost "and the economy falling off a cliff."

"I predict now we will see an end to the decline in auto [claim] frequency, and then it will move back up," he said, noting that the increase will come more slowly in states feeling a deeper impact from the recession such as California, Florida and Michigan.

The overall situation, he said, is akin to what occurred in the 1970s, when the OPEC-driven oil crisis sent gas prices spiking at a time when the economy was in recession.

We "saw a resumption of frequency after falling for several quarters," he recalled, and noted that frequency levels within a span of two years were back to where they were before the energy crisis.

Gas prices and auto claim frequency also drew comment from Allstate last week when the company reported its results.

Bob Block, head of investor relations at the carrier, said then that "reported frequency for both bodily injury and property damage increased significantly in the third quarter compared to prior years, but remained at levels comparable to 2007.

He mentioned that "auto frequencies in 2008 were favorably impacted by a variety of factors--high gas prices, drop in miles driven and rising unemployment, to name a few--with last year's third quarter being the most favorably affected."

This year's results "look more like the results we experienced in 2007," he said.

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