Bumper mismatches can hike car insurance bills

Dean Lampman

Someday, the federal government might mandate placement of bumpers on trucks, SUVs and “crossovers” at the right height — the same as that required on cars. Such a law would save the lion’s share of the billions of dollars the public doles out to fix vehicles when a car collides with a truck or SUV.

In the meantime, you can take steps now to ensure your safety, and avoid or limit high bills for car damage and car insurance:

  • Reconsider the type of vehicle you drive.
  • Adjust your coverage.
  • Drive defensively.

Experts say these are among only a few viable options to cope with the inevitable dangers and high costs of driving, both exacerbated by a preventable, pervasive problem: bumper mismatch. Yet even dutiful attention to preventive steps may not keep you in the clear.

Frustration grows

A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that even slow-speed collisions (10 miles per hour) between cars and SUVs — including those from the same automaker — can generate lots of damage. Bumpers do their job of absorbing energy and shielding equipment only if they "align" with another vehicle in an accident.

The institute's study highlights the alarming results that occur when bumpers aren't aligned or when they're flimsy or missing, as is true for some trucks and SUVs. The study shows costs for accidents involving a car and truck or SUV can easily total $6,000 to $10,000 — triple or quadruple the total for a comparable “car vs. car” wreck.

The institute's repeated requests for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to act on this issue have gained little traction. NHTSA largely ignored a similar bumper mismatch study in July 2008. Anne Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says: “We will continue to point out this problem and ask the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to address it."

The problem isn’t going away, Fleming says, despite higher sales of crossovers -- which, like SUVs, have bumpers that don’t align to car bumpers, or have weak bumpers or no bumpers.

Some drivers may prefer trucks and SUVs over cars, but John DeLay, senior partner at Alliance Insurance Co. in Dallas, says he sees convincing evidence -- in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and in car accident cases handled by his agency -- that trucks and SUVs are more expensive to own.

Here's what you can do to help prevent a bumper mismatch from eating up the budget for your car:

1. Reconsider the type of vehicle you drive.

Statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and other organizations show that accident damage, even from common, minor rear-end collisions, costs more to fix with a truck or SUV, and that such vehicles are more likely than cars to roll over in accidents.

For those reasons, DeLay says, a growing number of insurers charge higher premiums for trucks and SUVs than for cars. That's why DeLay drives a Toyota Camry; he says trucks and SUVS are “not made to be as durable as they were in the past.”

2. Adjust your coverage.

Jeanne Salvatore, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, says that some car insurance companies charge more for liability coverage on vehicles that, in an accident, are more likely to inflict a high level of damage on other vehicles. Given the study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, that class of vehicles would include SUVs, crossovers and trucks.

3. Drive defensively.

Insurers have begun to eliminate defensive driving discounts because speeding and other moving violations are a common reason for taking them. DeLay says drivers still can learn to be safer and avoid accidents, and some of them even may earn discounts on car insurance premiums by having that knowledge.

“Be smart,” Salvatore says. “With a safe driving record, you’ll spend a lot less for insurance.”

Ultimately, though, it’s tough to entirely escape the bumper mismatch problem. “There’s nothing consumers can do to make sure that their vehicle (bumper) lines up with others,” says Fleming, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety spokeswoman.

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