Car Sharing and Insurance

Our last post talked about a new condo development proposed for downtown Portland, ME that featured shared cars for unit owners. Coincidentally, Joseph White’s column in today’s Wall St. Journal discusses the growing appeal of car-sharing services like Zipcar. Essentially, it works like this: you pay a membership fee to join a service, which gives you access to several vehicles parked in various locations around larger cities. You reserve a car, pick it up at the designated spot, and pay only for the time, tolls and parking when you use it.

I’ve seen Zipcars in several major cities, and even a few in Maine (probably Boston folks escaping the city for the weekend), and some of them put my ride to shame. They have everything from Mini Coopers to minivans, SUVs to BMWs. The concept makes sense for non-car-owning city dwellers who need access to a good vehicle periodically.

Sharing ownership of anything doesn’t always come naturally to many Americans. We tend to be picky about our “stuff” – especially our cars. What if the last driver left the car a mess? Or low on fuel? Or in the wrong lot? Who maintains the vehicles? Of course, the car-sharing services address these and other issues.

What about insurance? In our agency, we haven’t actually seen a car-sharing contract, or been asked by our clients yet. However, our understanding is that at least one car-sharing company buys a blanket auto policy providing $300,000 liability coverage (much lower limits for those under 21), and assesses a $500 fee for damage you cause in an at-fault accident. Presumably, a condo association would buy similar coverage. Most insurers would be reluctant to insure lots of different unrelated drivers; they would probably charge more as a result. And, what if one of the condo unit owners was a poor driver? Would the other drivers have to pay more money for their exposure?

Another issue: many individuals have assets higher than $300,000. And Maine’s Wrongful Death Statute allows up to $500,000 in damages per person, PLUS punitive damages. Many members, if they don’t own other vehicles, may have no auto coverage of their own. They would be out of luck if an accident exhausted the $300,000 limit, and would be responsible for the remainder of the damages “out of pocket”.

Possible solutions: One could buy a “named non-owner” policy, or a personal umbrella policy. How the latter would respond to a “shared car” situation is an interesting question that has (to our knowledge) not been presented.

Sometimes, societal changes happen faster than the insurance industry can react, but the industry’s mission is to help the public manage risk. Car sharing services are gaining in popularity. It’s a matter of time before personal auto insurers develop procedures for addressing the exposures they present. We suggest that you confer with your agent if you are thinking about joining a service.