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EDITORIAL: No Need to Swerve on Insurance

Jul 10, 2007

By The Boston Globe

Jul. 11--Auto insurance rates in Massachusetts are going in the right direction -- sharply downward. Insurance commissioner Nonnie Burnes should steer clear of any policy changes that interfere with this beneficial trend.

In the coming days, Burnes is expected to lay out the Patrick administration's 2008 course on auto insurance. The options range from maintaining the current system that flattens rates for mostly urban and young drivers all the way to deregulating rates and allowing insurers to set their own premiums.

Many urban drivers fear that a dramatic swerve from the current system could increase their annual bills by 25 percent or more. Many suburban drivers would welcome a deregulated system that relieves them of the roughly $100 they now pay annually to subsidize urban and inexperienced drivers who are more vulnerable to accidents and theft. Burnes, a former Superior Court judge, needs to find a way to balance these interests.

Competition for auto insurance business in Massachusetts isn't as fierce as elsewhere. Some national insurers want no part of a system that gives the state insurance commissioner power to set the annual rate that all insurers must use to calculate premiums.

But Massachusetts residents can live without such companies, and especially their often specious criteria -- credit rating, occupation, homeownership -- for setting rates. When such companies are in the driver's seat, customers are unfairly relegated to assigned risk pools, in which they are forced to pay the company's preposterous "dirty rates." Faced with premiums they can't afford, more drivers will hit the road uninsured. And no one wants to run into them.

A seven-member auto insurance study group convened earlier this year by Governor Patrick unequivocally defended the practice of limiting rating factors to driving experience, at-fault accidents, location, and traffic violations. Any insurance company unwilling to abide by such relevant and reasonable criteria should not be welcomed here.

For years, fraud was driving rates through the roof in Massachusetts. But recent crackdowns in Lawrence and elsewhere are having the desired effect on premiums. Auto insurance rates have fallen by about 21 percent during the past three years. And local insurers, who make sound profits, are saying they are likely to ask the commissioner to reduce rates again in 2008.

Keeping law enforcement pressure on drivers who create phony claims is the best cost-containment action that Massachusetts can take. More consistent traffic enforcement would also reduce the risk of accidents.

If anyone can appreciate such factors, it should be a former judge like Burnes.


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