Today's Sunbeam

N.J. Auto Insurance Rates Reverse Downward Trend

Today's Sunbeam — Wednesday, August 3, 2011

By Today's Sunbeam
Salvador Rizzo / Statehouse Bureau

After years of steady declines, New Jersey's notoriously high auto insurance rates are on the rise again.

And, to stem the tide, the Christie administration is proposing new rules that would limit the kinds of medical care injured drivers can receive under their auto policies.

The proposed rules could rekindle debate over auto insurance, an issue that dominated New Jersey for decades, when angry motorists regularly revolted against paying rates that were nearly always the most expensive in the nation.

The administration's proposal also renews the long fight over who rules in disputes over injured motorists. Insurance companies have long sought these proposed changes, saying they will cut premiums. Consumer advocates Tuesday said they will hurt accident victims.

New Jersey auto insurance bills got smaller from 2005 to 2008 after former Gov. James E. McGreevey deregulated the insurance market. In 2008 — the most recent year for national figures — New Jersey stood third in the nation, at $1,081 per car.

But state officials say rates began to rise again in 2009, and continue to this day.

"The vast majority of the auto insurance companies in the state sought increases," said Department of Banking and Insurance spokesman Marshall McKnight.

McKnight could not say how much average rates have risen, adding that insurance companies are not required by law to disclose hikes if they don't exceed 7 percent per year.

The proposed rules would place limits on personal injury protection, which covers medical expenses for accident victims. McKnight said 97 percent of the rate hikes over the past two years were because of the rising cost of medical expenses.

Almost all New Jersey motorists have $250,000 in PIP coverage, McKnight said, while the national average is closer to $5,000.

"That makes the auto insurance policy in New Jersey compared with the rest of the nation inherently more expensive," he said.

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, director of the advocacy group New Jersey Citizen Action, said the changes would hurt motorists.

"It's just another hit at the consumer," she said. "It's another form of taxation."

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