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California orders car insurers to return premiums to drivers, citing traffic drop due to coronavirus

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Californians who paid their auto insurance premiums for March and April are getting their money back. Insurance regulators in the state on Monday ordered insurers to refund premiums as a way help residents who may be financially strapped because of the economic impact of the coronavirus. Insurers have four months to issue refunds. 

The order comes two weeks after major insurance companies, including Allstate, Geico and State Farm, had announced plans of offer customer relief and as consumer advocates press the industry to offer more relief.

"With Californians driving fewer miles and many businesses closed due to the COVID-19 emergency, consumers need relief from premiums that no longer reflect their present-day risk of accident or loss," Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara said in a statement. "Today's mandatory action will put money back in people's pockets when they need it most."

Also due for a refund in California: Health care professionals who paid for medical malpractice insurance; companies with auto, multiple peril or liability insurance; and business owners who paid workers' compensation insurance in March and April.

Traffic and auto accidents have fallen in California since Gov. Gavin Newsom instituted a stay-at-home mandate on March 19, a University of California Davis study found. Collisions fell from 1,000 per day to 500, while fatal accidents have dropped from 500 a day to 200, researchers said in citing California Highway Patrol statistics.

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Auto insurers have said that customers, including those in California, will soon receive hundreds of millions of dollars in discounts or refunds. Some auto insurers have also temporarily stopped canceling policies for non-payment, while others have started offering pay-as-you-go options to help struggling customers, according to American Property Casualty Insurance Association, an industry trade group. Among the companies giving customers a break:

  • Allstate, which is refunding a total of $600 million in auto insurance premiums, said customers are being provided 15% off their April and May bills. 
  • Farmers Insurance said customers will get 25% off their April rates.
  • Geico is offering auto and motorcycle customers 15% off between April 8 and October 7. 
  • USAA is offering motorists with an auto policy as of March 31 a 20% discount for April and May.
  • Progressive Insurance is giving auto customers 20% off their April bill. 
  • American Family Insurance customers will get a refund of $50 per insured vehicle.

Consumer advocates have urged state insurance regulators to force companies to return premiums. The Consumer Federation of America applauded companies that are returning money, but said there are others who haven't offered refunds, including Country Financial, Mapfre, National General and Sentry.

Insurance premium discounts of up to 25% are helpful, "but consumers might need double this amount to balance how much they pay with how much they drive this year," the federation's insurance director, J. Robert Hunter, said in a statement. "We expect companies and commissioners to help make this right as Americans struggle through this crisis."

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