If insurance rates are any barometer, then the stereotype is true: Washingtonians are bad drivers.
For the third year in a row, base insurance rates offered by at least 20 companies went up across Washington in 2017. According to the Washington state Office of the Insurance Commissioner, base car insurance rates went up by 7 percent on average in 2017. In 2016, base rates went up by an average of 5.9 percent and an average 4.4 percent in 2015.
So what’s driving the increase?
It seems like we’re just not very good drivers in the Pacific Northwest.
QuoteWizard, a company that compares insurance rates nationwide, ranked Washington drivers as the fifth-worst in the nation in 2017; that’s up four spots from the year before. Oregon drivers, meanwhile, were ranked the 18th-worst. QuoteWizard created its study using 2 million data points from its own website users, factoring in accidents, speeding tickets, DUIs, traffic tickets and compared that with fatality data from the Federal Highway Administration.
Insurance industry experts say that cheap gas, a strong economy and a rising population mean more people are on the road, driving newer cars — and perhaps playing with their phones when they shouldn’t be, and are thus getting into more and costlier accidents than years past.
“There definitely have been some negative changes in Washington over the last several years in what we call severity and frequency,” said Jim Whittle, associate general counsel for the American Insurance Association.
Whittle said insurance companies in Washington handled 18 percent more accident claims in the third quarter of 2017 than they did in the third quarter of 2013. Over the same period, liability property damage costs went up by 24 percent.
Modern cars, with their sensors, safety features, and unibody construction, are more expensive to repair than ever before. On top of that, medical costs of treating people in those wrecks seem to keep endlessly rising.
“You can explain a lot of this according to the cost of repairs going up,” Whittle said. “Vehicles have a lot of tech in them that have to be repaired or replaced. Today, you may have a $3,000 bumper claim when you had a $750 bumper claim a few years ago.”
While the rise in car accidents can’t be attributed to one particular cause, distracted driving is seen as an exacerbating factor behind the increase in auto collisions. Although stronger distracted-driving laws went into effect in Washington last year, that doesn’t mean drivers will be safer.
“The mere fact we passed them isn’t as important as people complying with them,” Whittle said. “On average, people are driving distracted for (about three) minutes for every hour they’re driving. When you consider you can travel the length of a football field in a few seconds, then you add three minutes of distracted driving, that’s a lot of football fields.”
Washington drivers aren’t the only ones dealing with higher auto insurance rates. According to The Zebra, a website that monitors the insurance market nationwide, Oregon communities in the Portland metro area are paying 43 percent more for insurance than they did in 2011. That’s more than twice the 20 percent increase they’ve seen nationwide.
“(Portland) — perhaps due to its population — also has higher than national average rates of vehicle theft and of uninsured drivers (with a marked increase between 2009 and 2015), two causes for rising rates,” Adam Lyons, the Company’s founder and executive chairman, said in a news release. “There’s also the element of severe weather, which can have an enormous impact on rates in a given region. Oregon has experienced wildfires, droughts, and several other damaging storms in recent years.”
But, just because they’ve recently gone up, insurance rates aren’t necessarily a one-way ratchet. Whittle said car insurance is a highly competitive market, and as consumers look for a better deal, they can put downward pressure on rates.
Kara Klotz, spokeswoman for the Washington state Office of the Insurance Commissioner, said much the same, but she cautioned people to know what they’re buying.
“Our advice to consumers is to shop around and compare rates,” she said. “But you also have to be careful as far as the type of coverage you had before compared to the new type of coverage you’re getting. Read the policy carefully. It’s not fun to read, but something you need to do.”