Study: Living by a church helps keep drivers safe

Published on

San Jose Mercury News (California)

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — The tranquility of a church apparently extends to the roads around it. But anyone who lives near a restaurant might want to say a prayer before pulling out of the driveway, according to the findings of an unusual insurance industry study.

The report released Tuesday by Quality Planning Corp., a risk assessment firm owned by the influential Insurance Services Office, analyzed 15 million auto insurance policies and 2 million claims to map out traffic accidents severe enough to cause property damage.

The bottom line: Drivers living within a mile of a church are the safest — they’re 10 percent less likely to crash than their fellow drivers, according to Quality Planning Corp., or QPC.

Alternately, drivers residing within a mile of a restaurant are 30 percent more likely to be in an accident, QPC said.

The San Francisco-based firm, formed 20 years ago, tallied the accident rates of motorists with homes near a wide variety of businesses and local landmarks.

Some of the report’s findings weren’t surprising. For instance, drivers who live near forests — typically remote areas with less traffic — are relatively safe (just 4 percent more likely to have an accident).

“By and large, your risks go way up when you are living closer to busy gathering points,” said Daniel Finnegan, QPC’s chief executive.

But some of QPC’s other conclusions seemed counterintuitive. For example, motorists living near elementary schools wind up in more accidents than those living near a liquor store — 26 percent more likely versus 18 percent.

“There are usually a lot of people coming and going at schools and sometimes there are a lot of distractions, too,” Finnegan said. “As the father of a rambunctious child, I can tell you that’s (the equivalent) of two drinks.”

Finnegan predicted insurers will draw upon the reports findings to recalculate their prices, producing in rate decreases for some drivers and boosting the premiums of motorists living in high-risk neighborhoods.

But the leader of a consumer watchdog group fighting for reforms to prevent home addresses from affecting auto insurance prices ridiculed the study.

“What’s next? A study showing people on low-carb diets cause less accidents than pasta eaters?” asked Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

Finnegan said several insurers already have contacted QPC about the report, but declined to identify them.

QPC’s past reports have been bought by several major auto insurers, including Farmers Insurance Co., USAA Insurance, and regional affiliates of the American Automobile Association.

ZIP codes have affected auto insurance prices for decades. The insurance industry believes the practice more accurately reflects its loss risks, citing historical data that indicate drivers living in densely populated or crime-ridden area tend to file more expensive claims than motorists living in suburban areas with less theft and violence.

The reliance on ZIP codes means motorists with similar driving records and cars may pay vastly different prices for the same amount of coverage, depending on where they live.

Critics like Heller view the territorial influence on auto insurance prices as a thinly disguised excuse to discriminate against drivers living in minority and low-income neighborhoods.

A package of auto insurance reforms approved by California voters 17 years ago dictated that the industry’s prices in the state be based primarily on driving records. But after years of staunch resistance, insurers won regulatory approval of a California pricing formula that continues to rely heavily on policyholder ZIP codes.

The QPC study concluded ZIP codes are too broad to serve as an accurate pricing gauge.

Heller agreed with that point, but described the rest of QPC’s thesis as absurd.

“What happens to the likelihood of getting in an accident if you live near a church that serves Saturday morning pancake breakfasts?”
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