Car insurance is an absolute necessity for anyone who drives a car. Even ignoring the fact that some types of car insurance are mandated by law, coverage is essential: the potential costs surrounding an accident — whether they be repair/replacement costs of the cars or other property, or medical costs of the victims — are simply too huge to run the risk of being without adequate coverage.
Car insurance policies can be divided into two distinct categories: third-party liability and first-party insurance. In car insurance terminology, the owner of the policy is the first party, who has contracted with the second party (the insurer) for the coverage. The third-party is the other person(s) in the accident, or the person(s) whose property the policy-owner damaged. Thus, in general, third-party liability insurance covers the damages to other people that are attributable to the policy-owner. First-party insurance covers damages that are done to the policy-owner or his passengers.
At least some amount of third-party liability coverage is required by law in most states; for the most part, first-party coverage is not. However, car insurance is not the place to save money by cutting corners; a single accident could easily wipe out someone’s life savings, whether they’re at fault or not. Also, price isn’t everything… if the insurance company balks at every claim, low premiums are meaningless.
Types of Car Insurance Policies
There are two types of third-party liability policies : bodily injury and property damage .
- Bodily injury liability pays other people for damages the policy owner has done to them, such as medical expenses , lost wages , and pain and suffering;
- Property damage pays other people for damages done to their property.
If someone files suit against the policy owner as a result of a car accident, these policies will provide monetary protection (up to the limit of the policy).
Nearly all states require a set minimum amount of third-party liability coverage. Generally, states that don’t require these policies are “no-fault” states, which have enacted laws that eliminate most claims of “pain and suffering” and many other standard small claims. Regardless of these “no-fault” laws, experts agree that the ideal policy should have more third-party liability coverage than is required by law. Juries sometimes award very large damages to plaintiffs with only minor injuries; the minimum required policy is highly unlikely to significantly defray liability costs in the event of a major lawsuit . And “no-fault” laws generally only protect drivers from petty claims – big injury suits are still allowable.
Bodily Injury – The common notation for bodily injury policies looks like 50/100 or 100/300, where the first number is the dollar amount (in thousands) of total coverage in the event that one person is injured or killed, and the second number is the total dollar amount (in thousands) for an entire accident. Again, this coverage will also handle legal expenses involved in settling suits brought against you. Experts suggest that a policy have at least 100/300 insurance ($100,000 coverage for one person’s injuries, $300,000 per accident).
Property Damage – Following the same notation as above, property damage is the third number listed on the policy, e.g., if the policy were 100/300/25, it would offer $25,000 worth of coverage to repair or replace others’ property (including cars). Typically, states require property damage insurance of around $15,000, but because the cost of the average new car is well above $20,000, coverage of at least $25,000 generally makes sense.
First-party coverage comes in many forms , some of which are essential, and some of which are usually not worth the premiums. First-party coverage is used to repair damages to the policy-owner and his or her passengers in the event that:
- The policy owner was not at fault in the accident
- No one was at fault in the accident
- The driver at fault can not be found (e.g., a hit-and-run)
- The driver at fault does not have adequate means to repair the policy owner’s damages
The most important types of first-party coverage are collision, comprehensive, uninsured/under-insured motorist, and MedPay/Personal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance.
Collision / Comprehensive – Collision coverage guarantees the policy owner’s car will be repaired or replaced in the event of an accident, no matter who was at fault. Collision coverage premiums are based on a deductible, usually $250 or $500. Collision coverage is often required when purchasing a new car on a loan, to protect the lender. Comprehensive coverage will pay to repair or replace the policy owner’s vehicle and personal property inside of it if it was damaged or lost due to other agents, e.g., fire, theft, flood, vandalism, etc. Comprehensive coverage is also based on a deductible, generally of the same amounts as Collision, and is also often required when purchasing a new car using a loan. Both Collision and Comprehensive coverage can be RCV (replacement cost value) or ACV (actual cash value). RCV will pay what it would cost to replace the car with a new one, ACV will pay what it would cost to repair the car to its prior condition (or replace it with one of a similar condition). Thus, RCV has a higher maximum benefit, but also a higher premium.
Uninsured / Under-insured – Uninsured / Under-insured Motorist coverage (also called UM/UIM coverage) pays the policy owner and his or her passengers for pain and suffering, lost wages, etc. in the event that the driver at fault can not be found (as in a hit-and-run), has no insurance, or has too little insurance to cover the damages. Experts say that UM/UIM coverage is at least as important as bodily injury coverage: it is unlikely that the driver at fault will have enough coverage to pay the damages resulting from a serious accident. Further, while other policies can combine to offer the same kind of coverage as UM/UIM, there are several advantages to this type of coverage:
- It is more broad that most health or disability plans – it can cover loss of limb, pain and suffering, funeral expenses, etc.
- It has much higher coverage than other types of medical-expense car insurance, such as MedPay and PIP (described below).
- It is relatively inexpensive.
UM/UIM coverage is described by the same notation as bodily injury coverage (e.g., 100/300). Generally, insurance companies will only the allow purchase of UM/UIM coverage up to your current bodily injury limit; experts suggest you purchase the maximum UM/UIM.
Medical Payments – MedPay covers medical and funeral expenses to the policy-owner and his or her passengers, regardless of who is at fault in the accident. Personal Injury Protection (PIP) extends basic medical coverage to include lost wages and other damages, and also pays regardless of fault. PIP is often mandated by states that have “no-fault” laws. The maximum coverage for MedPay and PIP is generally much less than that allowed by UM/UIM.
Most car insurance policies go with the car; that is, they will pay out appropriately regardless of who is driving the car at the time of the accident (as long as the policy owner allowed the driver to use the car). However, if a non-policy-owner is going to use the car on a frequent basis, be sure to include him or her on the insurance policy . Furthermore, if someone drives the car much more often than the policy owner, he or she should consider becoming the primary driver of the car. The primary driver in large part determines the insurance premiums, and providing false information can give the insurance company cause to void the policy.
The owner of a car is not responsible for third-party damages resulting from or during the theft of his/her car. If the car owner has collision and comprehensive coverage, they will pay out to repair or replace the car (either for its theft or for damage to the car as a result of the theft).
The term “Rental Car Coverage” is used to refer to two different things: coverage offered by rental car agencies for cars rented from them, and an add-on to insurance policies that allows free rentals while the car is in repair. Coverage from a rental car agency is rarely necessary, assuming the renter already has third-party liability, collision, and comprehensive coverage; those policies should extend protection to the rental car (but check the policy). Rental car companies often offer other types of coverage; experts usually suggest avoiding most of these.
The rental car add-on to insurance policies is very inexpensive, but may be an unnecessary expense if the policy owner has another car to rely on during an emergency.