Alan Judd

Motoring | 24 September 2011

Beware the vultures

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The imminence of paying for a 17-year-old to learn to drive brings with it the unwelcome question of insurance. Rather more welcome is recent publicity about insurance revealing yet another conspiracy against the consumer.

Some premiums have jumped by up to 40 per cent. The reason usually given — uninsured drivers for whom we all end up paying — is only part of the story, and not the major one. That honour goes to the automotive ambulance-chasers, the scam whereby accident management companies and credit hire operators are in league with insurance brokers — all three sometimes owned by the same private equity company. They take over the processing of your claim, encourage you to quote whiplash or any other injury that’s hard to confirm and hire you a car while yours is off the road. The hire car and the time taken to repair yours are often neither the cheapest nor shortest possible. The bill is supposed to be paid for by the other party’s insurance company (which means us, ultimately), but you might be unpleasantly surprised to find that the other party’s insurers refuse to pay for the expensive credit hire so that the costs then fall upon your insurers, pushing your next premium through the roof.

How do these vultures get on to you? Usually because insurers — not necessarily your own — sell them your details. They also do random cold-calling. I’ve twice been texted by lawyers promising to win me £3,000 if I would let them have details of any accident I’d been involved in. Such practices have been well aired in the motoring press but broke through to national consciousness only when taken to the Today programme by a public figure, the former home and foreign secretary, Jack Straw. There is now the prospect of government action to restrict the practice, even if it doesn’t expunge it, not least by tackling no-win-no-fee lawyers. But don’t bet the farm on your premiums coming down any time soon.

All this, of course, feeds into the sky-high premiums that young drivers now have to pay. When I had my first car — a 1955 Ford Popular — insurance was a bearable burden, with the major cost the car itself (£40). Now it’s often the other way round; a friend is paying £2,500 to insure her 17-year-old to drive his £1,000 Renault. So, what does the cash-strapped parent do?

Most won’t do what my father did: lend me the money which I repaid by hedging and ditching fields. After that I was on my own, paying running costs from any other jobs I could get. But parents nowadays expect to support their young for much longer. The priority, therefore, should be a car in insurance group one or two, probably with an engine no larger than 1.2 litres. There’s a lot to be said for old bangers because new drivers tend to bump and scratch a bit, but among modern cars consider basic versions of Citroëns C1 and C2, Peugeot 107, VW Fox, Vauxhall Corsa, Skodia Fabia, Toyota Aygo, Fiat Panda, Suzuki Alto, Ford Ka, Nissan Pixo and Hyundai i10. Otherwise, think about a classic such as a Morris Minor — not much crash protection, admittedly, but classic car insurance, all parts available and they won’t go anywhere fast.

If you’re insuring in the beloved’s own name, it’s often cheaper to add yourselves as named drivers. It’s also worth asking your insurer whether there’s a discount if the new driver takes the Pass Plus course (a good idea anyway). Ditto ‘smart boxes’ — which record how the driver drives — a curfew (no driving after 11 p.m.) and a limit on the number of passengers. Ask, too, whether there’s a discount for multicar policies, which means having all the family cars with the same insurer. Some companies offer substantial reductions for this, but do read the small print — low starter premiums can jump alarmingly when the L plates come off.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Three years ago my nephew’s parents bought him a 1999 Suzuki Swift, 993cc, paying £1,100 for a one-owner 15,000-miler. They took out a multicar policy with Direct Line in his mother’s name, with her as the main driver and him as named. The premium was slightly less than the cost of the car but the real selling point was that the 17-year-old could accumulate his own no-claims discount. After another 15,000 miles, during which the car’s only fault was a split rubber gaiter, they sold it for £700, by which time the premium was reduced to £730 and my nephew had a four-year NCD (three years earned, plus one bonus), making it possible for him to insure his own next car.

However, had his mother demonstrably not been the main driver — say, if they were living apart — their insurance would have been invalidated and they’d have been breaking the law. So, if you insure it, make sure you drive it.