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BAD DRIVERS ARE GETTING BETTER DEALS ON INSURANCE

Crumpled fenders, dented trunks, too many speeding tickets or dinged doors used to always mean higher car insurance costs in New York state and assignment to the dreaded purgatory of the "assigned risk pool."

But now New Yorkers with ugly driving records can expect to have an easier time finding automobile insurance and at less cost.

An increasing number of insurance companies are moving into the "nonstandard market" in New York, making it easier for drivers to get coverage at more competitive rates.

Tim Stevenson, co-owner of co-owner of Buffalo Gauge in Amherst, said he ended up with lower premiums after his wife's driving record was marked with moving violations and insurance claims.

Stevenson was dropped by one insurance company, but he ended up getting the same coverage with Royal Insurance through the Charles P. Faso Agency in Kenmore.

"I got the same coverage and we saved 40 percent. I was surprised," said Stevenson.

Drivers with accident records, driving while intoxicated convictions, young men with sports cars and other drivers who insurers deem high risks are considered nonstandard. Those drivers pay more for insurance than drivers considered low risk.

The nonstandard market covers about 20 percent of personal automobile insurance in the country. About 80 percent of drivers are rated as standard or preferred.

As insurance companies begin embracing more of the drivers they once considered untouchable, the number of insurance applicants processed through the state's assigned-risk pool has dropped significantly.

Total policies assigned through the New York State Automobile Insurance Plan -- the state program finding coverage for drivers insurance companies don't want -- have been cut in half in the last five years.

The latest large insurer jumping into the nonstandard market is Travelers Property and Casualty of Hartford, Conn. The new business line for Travelers is expected to create 60 to 80 jobs at the company's regional claims office in Buffalo over the next two years, company managers said.

Metropolitan Property and Casualty has also entered the nonstandard market in New York. Other large insurers such as Progressive Insurance Co., Allstate Indemnity, and State Farm Fire & Casualty have been writing profitable business in the nonstandard market for several years.

The increased competition is making it easier for drivers to find good rates, said Faso.

Faso found insurance for two newer cars owned by a middle-aged, professional couple with four loss claims in the last three years, including two collisions, for $2,479 a year in the nonstandard market. The couple paid $2,186 for the exact coverage when they were rated as standard customers by their insurance company.

"The insurance companies have decided they were missing a portion of the marketplace," Faso said. "It's getting a lot easier to get insurance without going into the assigned-risk pool."

Claims frequency is one of the most important factors on a driver's record. Three low-dollar claims will get a driver moved into a higher-risk tier more quickly than one high-cost claim, Faso said.

Other scars that could help quickly drop a driver into the nonstandard market include an insurance lapse or a driving while intoxicated conviction. Insurance companies also still look at traditional factors such as the driver's age and type of automobile.

Local sports car drivers are beginning to have an easier time finding insurance, according to Charles Youngers, an agent in Amherst.

"Before, you had to be a middle-age man with a good driving record and no son or daughter lurking in the background," said Youngers, who operates George H. Youngers & Son Inc.

In addition to more competitive pricing, drivers are also likely to get better service from an insurance company by staying out of the assigned-risk pool.

Applicants assigned through the risk pool are essentially dumped on insurers by the state. The pool is divided by market share. For example, a company writing 10 percent of all automobile insurance in the state would get 10 percent of the assigned-risk pool.

"When the option was the assigned-risk plan, we thought a lot of that business was treated like second-class business. We were just not getting good service for our clients," Youngers said.

Relaxed regulatory standards in some states and technological advancements have drawn companies into the nonstandard market, said Peter Bothwell, a senior vice president at Travelers.

Improved computer systems with expanded databases allow insurers to underwrite higher risk drivers more profitably, he said. The more information the company has, the better it can judge the risk and price the product.

If you have had any automobile claim or insurance lapse in the last three years, the insurance company will most likely find that information. An increasing number of insurance companies are also finding out how applicants pay their bills by running credit checks.

Many insurance executives believe there is a strong correlation between a driver's credit rating and his or her insurability. People who are careless with their finances are more likely to be careless drivers, Bothwell said.