Texting + driving = higher auto insurance

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Your auto insurance company is watching as states crack down on texting while driving, a key contributor to the distracted-driving crashes that have killed more than 3,000 people in one year, according to the most recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. An agency website says if you text and drive, you’re 23 times more likely to crash.

In one recent extreme recent case, authorities in Polk County, Fla., say a 34-year-old man received and sent more than 50 text messages during an hour-long drive that ended when his Chevy Camaro collided head-on with another vehicle, killing two people.

The threat to safety has prompted a majority of the states plus the District of Columbia to ban texting while driving. Other states without complete bans have partial bans for various segments of the population, such as newly licensed drivers and school bus operators.

Are texting-related crashes pumping up car insurance rates? And will your rates rise if you break one of the state laws? Experts do see some likely connections.

Texting ‘bound to have an effect’ on rates

Data on any kind of general financial impact from distracted-driving crashes are limited because many police departments simply don’t track the root cause of those wrecks, explains Michael Green, a national spokesman for auto club AAA in Washington, D.C.

Details about texting, talking on a cellphone or even reaching for a cup of coffee tend to get lost in the investigations. And those departments that do enter the data tend to do so only when serious injuries or property damage are involved, Green says.

Loretta Worters, a vice president with the Insurance Information Institute in New York City, says if you text, it’s bound to have an effect on your premiums. But she cautions that while there is “a direct correlation between texting and having accidents,” your insurance rates are based on a large number of factors including how many moving violations are on your record and the number of claims you’ve filed over the past couple of years.

A violation of a texting-while-driving law — such as a citation for any other moving violation — can contribute to a pattern of behavior that insurance companies look at to determine your insurance premiums, says Michal Brower, a State Farm Insurance spokeswoman in Winter Haven, Fla. More negative reports on your driving record will probably result in you paying more for insurance, she adds.

Insurers want to see more action to stop texting drivers. Worters says the laws are well-intentioned but need to be enforced more strictly and with stronger penalties. “Rather than a fine, suspend the person’s license” if they violate a texting statute, she says.

Utah’s law, passed in May 2009, goes further than most and has been called the toughest in the nation. Drivers found guilty of texting while driving and causing an accident that kills or injures someone can serve up to 15 years behind bars. The statute puts multitasking drivers in the same “inherently reckless” category as drunken drivers.

But many of the laws fall short because they’re secondary in nature, which means an officer can only issue a ticket if a driver has been pulled over for another violation such as speeding or drunken driving, says Karen Morgan, AAA’s manager of public policy in Florida.

“The situation is also complicated by differing standards among jurisdictions,” Morgan notes. “Some provide for warnings to be given, some bundle the texting ban into a wider distracted-driving law, and some do not even collect data on the offenses.”

Are laws making texting problem worse?

Meanwhile, there is some concern that anti-texting laws may actually be contributing to the problem.

A study done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Va., trade group, found that “where texting bans were in effect, crash rates rose in 3 out of 4 states,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the trade group. He says one reason may be that police now report seeing more drivers holding phones below window level — thus they take their eyes off the road — to avoid being caught with their fingers on the keypad.

Instead of changing driver behavior, it may be easier to stop texting-related accidents through crash-avoidance technologies, such as collision warning systems and automatic braking, Rader says. While these features are currently quite costly and found more often in luxury automobiles, he expects manufacturers will soon have them generally available in mainstream family cars.

State Farm’s Brower says while the nation’s largest auto insurance company supports any measures that promote safe driving habits, it all comes down to personal choice. She says people who insist on texting and driving will do so whether there is a law against it or not. Her hope is that drivers will simply make the choice to drive safely and put down the phone.