Auto insurance discounts you may be missing

With gas prices stuck at a permanently high level, you need to look for any edge that might cut your total car costs. Start by making sure you aren't missing any auto insurance discounts, some of them new.

Financial website Bankrate.com notes that fierce competition among insurers leads to a steady introduction of new discounts. Bankrate surveyed the top 10 auto insurers and found that some discounts have been introduced or greatly expanded in the past year, including those for having daytime running lights and for driving low annual mileage.

You may have to dig for some of these discounts. "You can't assume that your insurance company knows that you added an antitheft system to your car or that your alma mater offers an alumni discount," says Doug Whiteman, Bankrate insurance analyst. "It's your responsibility to tell your provider and ask for the discount." He adds: "This simple step could save you hundreds of dollars a year."

Some discounts are well-established, such as those for having auto and homeowners insurance with the same company, but you nonetheless should consider taking advantage of them. Some others in this category are being in the military, taking a defensive driving course (especially for seniors) and as much as 15 percent discount for a young driver on your policy who gets good grades.

Also, remember that driving carefully and avoiding accidents for a long period (often five years) can cut your rates. Most major insurers give discounts for air bags, antilock brakes and antitheft devices. However, available discounts will vary by state depending on the regulations where you live.

Other discounts are newer and less well-known. Here are some to look for:

Datyime running lights Low-intensity lights that turn on whenever your engine is started have long been required in Canada. Research there found an 11 percent reduction in daytime accidents. The U.S. doesn't require them, but several manufacturers have installed them voluntarily. So, if your car is from General Motors (GM), Toyota (TM), Volvo, Mercedes-Benz or Subaru, check into savings with this discount.

Alumni and affinity groups Half the top 10 auto insurers have arrangements for discounts with alumni associations of some universities, fraternities and sororities, and professional associations. I had never heard of this one until recently when our insurance agent pointed out that my wife's alumni association entitled us to a discount.

Newer cars Half the insurers surveyed also give discounts for cars three years or newer. This presumably results from tightening federal safety regulations that have made more and more safety equipment -- such as traction control that helps avoid rollover accidents -- mandatory on all new cars.

Low mileage If you drive relatively few miles a year, your insurance costs can be reduced. But the companies won't take your word for it. This discount usually involves installing an electronic device in your car that measures your actual mileage and sends it to the insurer. Getting this discount can also mean surrendering a bit of privacy because some of these devices also measure how you drive, whether you speed or stop and start aggressively, for instance.

Discounts will often save you money, but they aren't the whole story. J. Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, points out that in the current market, your credit history is among the most important factors in determining your insurance premium.

And he notes that the insurer with the most discounts may not have the lowest rates. Always check the bottom line. Says Hunter: "You really have to be careful."

  • Jerry Edgerton On Twitter»

    View all articles by Jerry Edgerton on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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