Are Insurance Premiums The Key To Getting Americans To Drive Less?

<p>Forget congestion pricing and higher gas taxes -- accurately priced pay-as-you-go auto insurance might be the best financial incentive tool for encouraging people to change their driving habits.</p>
April 21, 2008, 9am PDT | Christian Madera | @cpmadera
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"Americans drive too much. This isn't a political or moral argument; it's an economic one..."

"[W]ith roughly three trillion miles driven each year producing more than $300 billion in externality costs, drivers should probably be taxed at least an extra 10 cents per mile if we want them to pay the full societal cost of their driving.

How can this be achieved? Higher tolls, especially variable tolls like congestion pricing, are one option. This seems to have worked well in London but was recently quashed in New York City, where the political hurdles proved too high.

A higher gas tax might also work. If a typical car gets 20 miles to the gallon, then the proper tax would be about $2 per gallon. But with the current high market price for gas and the political hysterics attached to it - well, good luck with that one.

This brings us to automobile insurance. While economists may argue that gas is poorly priced, that imbalance can't compare with how poorly insurance is priced."

"Aaron Edlin first noticed this imbalance more than 15 years ago. "I was a graduate student at Stanford," he says, "and I drove maybe 2,000 miles a year. But I paid roughly the same $1,000 as if I'd driven 10 times as much, which was a huge portion of my budget." A few years later, Edlin was serving on the President's Council of Economic Advisers when he floated an idea that economists had long found attractive: pay-as-you-drive (PAYD) insurance. It seemed like an obvious solution. Since no one expects to pay the same price for, say, a 60-minute massage as they pay for a 15-minute massage, why should people pay the same for insurance no matter how many miles they drove?

"The objection within the White House," Edlin recalls, "was there wasn't good academic research on the subject."

Edlin and a few others, including Jason Bordoff and Pascal Noel at the Brookings Institution, have since done such research. It makes a compelling case that PAYD insurance would work well, reducing the carbon emissions, congestion and accident risk created by too much driving while leading drivers to pay the true cost of their mileage. Bordoff and Noel put the total social benefit at $52 billion a year."

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Published on Sunday, April 20, 2008 in The New York Times Magazine
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