Personal Auto: 3 Factors Driving Frequency and Severity Up

Between 2012, when people started getting behind the wheel again post-recession, and 2016, personal auto claim frequency increased over 5% for both bodily injury and comprehensive, and over 10% for both property damage and collision, according to the 2018 Insurance Fact Book from the Insurance Information Institute (III).

Severity, meanwhile, followed a similar trend: III reports that over the same timeframe, severity increased nearly 10% for bodily injury, nearly 20% for property damage, over 16% for collision and more than 10% for comprehensive.

What’s the source of these increases? And is the trend likely to continue moving forward?

1) More miles driven. 2015 marked a downward turn for gas prices and kicked off a cycle of “near-record-low unemployment numbers,” says Michael Grove, senior vice president, senior product manager at Safeco.

As a result of these economic improvements, people are driving more. Grove cites statistics from the U.S. government that place number of miles driven in the U.S. around 2.9 trillion in 2009, compared to 3.2 trillion in 2017. “Obviously more people on the road leads to more accidents,” he says. “That’s putting pressure on the entire industry.”

As gas prices creep back up, Grove expects to see “some leveling off in terms of miles driven.”

And that’s good news for frequency: While “both frequency and severity stayed elevated throughout 2015-2016,” says David Arango, senior vice president of Property & Casualty, Personal Lines for Nationwide, frequency, at least, slowed down in 2017—and will likely start leveling out from this point forward.

Severity, however, is another story. “We do not see medical inflation, nor the cost to repair and replace vehicles, dropping anytime soon,” Arango says. “We expect to see severity remain elevated.”

For the last half of 2018, then, “there’s still a need for rate, but it’s not to the degree we’ve seen in 2015-2016,” Arango predicts. “Carriers will still need to take rate to keep up with severity trends, but slightly less than what we’ve seen as an industry.”

2) Auto technology—or lack of it. Longer-term, severity is only expected to climb, thanks in large part to built-in driver assist technology safety features which “are leading to more complex repairs,” Grove says. “On a newer model, if you knock off a rearview mirror, you’re not just replacing the mirror—you’re replacing that sensor as well.”

Because it’s designed to help keep drivers safe behind the wheel, technology like lane departure alerts should ultimately help reduce auto claim frequency. But for now, older cars reign—and they’re not equipped with the kind of technology that could make a dent in frequency.

“The challenge is it’s such a small portion of the fleet that has the technology,” Arango points out. “Even for the small percentage of vehicles that has those features, you can turn them off. They really don’t help you when they’re turned off.”

3) Distracted driving. Pedestrian deaths are up 46% since their lowest point in 2009, according to a recent study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The increase is most noticeable in urban and suburban areas, away from intersections, on busy main roads and in the dark, the research reports.

“They believe it’s connected to higher-horsepower vehicles,” Grove says. “But I also theorize that it’s connected to distracted driving.”

Amy Shore, president of Property & Casualty Sales and Distribution for Nationwide, agrees that distracted driving is a serious concern for the personal auto line. “That will continue to put pressure on frequency until we really can collectively do something about it—not just as an industry, but as a society,” she says.

In the years ahead, expect more states to continue passing tougher distracted driving laws, such as those that make texting illegal for all drivers, or prohibit any kind of cellphone use whatsoever—including hands-free functions—for drivers under the age of 21.

All good things, Grove says: “From the standpoint of helping make the U.S. a safer place, we should all support those measures as an industry.”

Jacquelyn Connelly is IA senior editor.