Car insurance

Which insurances do you need for your car in the US?

Car insurance

One of the most surprising things about car insurance is that it isn’t mandatory in some states, e.g. Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, etc. These states have ‘financial responsibility’ laws, requiring you to post a bond, cash deposit or approved self-insurance with the state to cover damages if you’re involved in an accident.

Motorists in states where car insurance is compulsory must provide proof of insurance at the time of vehicle registration and may be required to carry it in their vehicles at all times. Buying car insurance is more complicated in the US than in most other countries and may include the following types of cover:

Liability Insurance

Liability insurance includes bodily injury liability, i.e. injuries you cause to someone else, and property damage liability, which is damage caused to someone else’s property, including other vehicles. In most states, liability motor insurance is compulsory, although it doesn’t necessarily include unlimited liability. Most states have laws setting minimum levels for liability insurance, but these are usually woefully inadequate. ‘Responsibility’ limits are set by each state for death or injury to one person, death or injury to more than one person, and property damage in excess of a certain amount.

If your liability after an accident exceeds your amount of insurance and you have personal assets, these are used to pay damages, if necessary, until you’re bankrupt.

Lawsuits often run into millions of dollars and litigation lawyers are among the richest legal vultures. Liability limits can usually be raised significantly for a modest extra premium. To protect yourself against astronomical damages, you can also take out a personal liability umbrella policy which increases your liability limits to a level that covers almost any event.

No-fault Insurance

Around 25 states and the District of Columbia have some form of Personal Injury Protection (PIP) or no-fault insurance law. This means that if you’re involved in an accident, you can claim (up to certain limits) from your own insurance company for personal injury sustained in an accident, rather than go to court and try to prove that the other party was at fault. In states without a no-fault law, the victim files a claim against the other driver, irrespective of whether or not the driver is insured, and is paid only if it can be proved that the other driver was responsible for the accident. If you weren’t to blame and can prove it through witnesses or a police prosecution of the other driver, make sure your insurance company is informed, or you may lose your good driver (no-claims) discount.

Where applicable, PIP insurance is usually compulsory and covers bodily injury only and not vehicle damage. Those insured under PIP insurance receive prompt payment from their own insurance company, but their right to sue for general damages is usually restricted. Motorists insured in states with liability laws should ensure that their insurance covers them when travelling in states with no-fault laws. Most insurance companies automatically extend their policies to cover states with no-fault laws.

PIP cover may duplicate insurance provided by health or disability insurance policies. PIP insurance provides benefits for medical and hospital costs (the level depends on your policy), plus lost wages or income continuation, replacement/essential services, survivors’ loss/death benefit, and funeral expenses. Lost wages and replacement services are payable up to a maximum amount for maximum periods.

PIP Medical Expenses Insurance

It’s possible to buy Personal Injury Protection cover for medical expenses only. PIP medical expenses pays the medical expenses of anyone injured when travelling in your car, irrespective of fault. Depending on your policy, it may also pay your medical bills when you or your family members are travelling in someone else’s car, or if you’re hit by a car while walking. Unlike other health policies, the medical payments part of a vehicle policy pays for all medical expenses incurred, without excesses (deductibles) or co-payments (called ‘first dollar coverage’).

If you have comprehensive health insurance, you may not require this protection, although it also covers anyone travelling in your car. In some states, you can choose your PIP health insurance provider, who can be someone other than your car insurance company, e.g. your employer’s health insurance company.

Catastrophic Medical Expenses Insurance

Some insurance companies offer catastrophic medical expenses cover, protecting you against abnormally high medical bills. Whether or not you have this type of insurance depends on the level of your health insurance. If it has limitations, you’re advised to have catastrophic medical expenses cover.

Uninsured Motorist Insurance

To protect yourself against accidents with uninsured motorists and hit-and-run accidents (whether driving or walking), you should have uninsured motorist insurance. Uninsured motorist laws have been enacted in many states, requiring insurance companies to include in their basic policy cover against damage caused by motorists who aren’t insured. Uninsured motorist cover is usually equal to the minimum financial responsibility limits set by a state and is compulsory in some states. If you have collision insurance, you usually don’t need uninsured motorist insurance.

In many states, the penalties for driving without insurance are derisory, and there may be no penalty at all unless you have an accident. However, when the paltry financial penalties are compared with the often high insurance premiums, it’s hardly surprising that there are so many uninsured motorists. If you have an accident involving another vehicle, the chances of the driver being uninsured are extremely high in some cities, so it’s important to calculate the financial consequences of an accident involving an uninsured motorist.

Under-insured Motorist Insurance

This is similar to uninsured motorist cover and covers you when another motorist is responsible, but has insufficient insurance to cover the injuries or damage to property (although, if he has sufficient assets, you can still sue him).

Collision Insurance

Collision cover is for damage caused by you to your own vehicle, irrespective of who was responsible for the damage. Collision cover usually has an excess (deductible); the higher the excess, the lower your premium. Whether it’s necessary (or wise) to have collision cover usually depends on the value of your car. Collision and comprehensive cover are usually required by a car loan or a leasing company. With collision insurance, you usually don’t need uninsured motorist insurance.

Comprehensive Insurance

Comprehensive cover is for loss of the vehicle resulting from fire, theft, vandalism, collisions with animals, storms, floods, riots, explosions, earthquakes, falling objects, plus accidental glass breakage, e.g. from a stone thrown up by another vehicle. It doesn’t cover you against accidents involving other vehicles or objects, for which you require collision cover. Comprehensive cover usually has a lower excess than collision cover.

Miscellaneous Extra Insurance

This insures you against a wide range of costs, including a rental car when your car is being repaired, and towing and labour in the event of an accident or breakdown (also provided by automobile clubs). If you frequently use rented cars, you may be interested in a policy that includes collision damage waiver (CDW) for rented cars, which may also be provided free by a credit card.


Insurance premiums are high, particularly for men under 27 and those who live in inner cities, where driving conditions are more hazardous and where car theft is endemic. Many factors influence the cost of car insurance, including:

  • The make and type of car (and how expensive it is to repair);
  • The type of insurance cover required;
  • The age and value of the car;
  • Your age, sex (some companies offer a discount to women drivers) and occupation;
  • What you use your car for (e.g. business or pleasure);
  • Your driving experience and driving record;
  • Your accident record and no-claims bonus (good-driver discount);
  • Who will drive the car;
  • Your health (you may be required to pay an excess if you suffer from epilepsy or diabetes);
  • Where you live and whether your car is stored in a locked garage overnight;
  • The number of miles you do each year;
  • Any extras required, such as a rented car when your car’s being repaired after an accident.

Shop around a number of insurance companies, as rates can vary by up to 400 per cent. Among the largest US car insurers are State Farm, Allstate, Farmers and Nationwide. State Farm is a mutual insurance company and customers sometimes receive a refund from excess profits. You should ask your family, friends and colleagues for their advice regarding car insurance, although you should also make your own comparisons.

Some ways to reduce your insurance are to:

  • Make comparisons - shop ’til you drop!
  • Insure your car with your household insurance company, which may yield a discount of 5 to 10 per cent.
  • Take advantage of insurer’s discounts, usually 5 or 10 per cent of the premium. Most insurance companies offer discounts for cars fitted with air bags, automatic seat belts, anti-theft devices or anti-lock brakes. Many also provide low-mileage discounts and discounts for more than one car, no claims (good-driver discounts, e.g. if you make no insurance claims in three years), drivers aged over 50 or 55, driver training courses (e.g. defensive-driving), and even good student grades (are diligent students safer drivers?). Drivers aged over 65 can complete a ‘mature driving course’ in some states, guaranteeing them a three-year discount on their insurance premiums.
  • Don’t get uninsured motorist cover unless required by state law. If you’re hit or injured by an uninsured motorist, repair and medical bills are covered by your collision insurance (provided you have it!), PIP cover and other medical insurance.
  • Drop your reimbursement for a rented car. If you’re a two-car (or more) family, you may be able to do without a rented car while one car is being serviced or repaired. Insurance companies have limits on what they pay for a rented car.
  • If you have an employee hospitalisation plan, you could drop your car insurance medical payments, which duplicates medical insurance you already have.
  • Drop the emergency towing service, which you probably don’t need unless you have an old car susceptible to breakdowns. Insurers often limit what they provide for a tow, which is too little anyway. Join the AAA or another automobile club providing an emergency towing service.
  • If your car isn’t a status symbol, consider buying a ‘low profile’ car with a low insurance rating and, if you’re considering a house move, choose a low insurance area.
  • One thing not to do in order to save money on car insurance is reduce your liability limits!

There’s no correlation between the premium you pay and the quality of service you receive, so paying a high premium doesn’t guarantee the best service. Some 25 states publish information comparing the insurance rates of different companies. For information contact your state insurance regulator. Premiums can be increased at renewal time, which is likely if you’ve made any claims in that period. Many insurance companies allow premiums to be paid in instalments, e.g. quarterly or monthly.

When completing your insurance proposal form, make sure that you state any previous accidents or driving offences; otherwise your insurer can refuse to pay out in the event of a claim. Drivers who have been banned for drunk or dangerous driving must usually pay at least double the standard premium for three years (even penalty points on your licence increases your premium). Your insurance company may cancel your policy if you’re found guilty of drunk driving, speeding or recklessness resulting in injury or death. For general information on car insurance contact the Insurance Information Institute, 110 William Street, Floor 24, New York, NY 10038 (212-346-5500, ).

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

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