Tuesday, March 08, 2011

No More Wheels for Sheila

The recent ruling by the EU that car insurers can no longer discriminate against men has had the very amusing effect of uniting both the left-wing and right-wing commentators in their condemnation of it. Those on the left hate it because for once this is a ruling that doesn't make women more equal. Those on the right hate it because this is yet another instance of that pesky EU getting involved in British business.

I do always love it when the two sides agree like this.

There is one argument against this ruling that has some weight, and it is this: young men do on average get involved in more accidents, and on average those accidents are more expensive. Therefore, since the insurance industry is entirely about managing risk, based on cold hard statistics, it makes sense that they apply those statistics.

I have big problems with this argument.

Firstly, it must be said that my insurance underwriter is not insuring men, they are insuring me. The driving habits of other men, no matter how outrageous, quite simply have no bearing on how I drive. And that's the thing about discrimination: although we always talk about discrimination against groups, discrimination is always felt by the individual.

(Statistically, women don't know the offside rule. Does that make it acceptable to assume any given woman doesn't know the rule, even if she happens to be an assistant referee? Similarly, if a young man grows up in a different country, absent the whole "boy racer" thing, is it still valid to charge them more based on that aspect of our culture? (Note: neither of these is a theoretical example.))

Secondly, we have always had a habit of ignoring statistics when they don't suit us. Tobacco is legal in this country, but cannabis is not. Indeed, the latter has just been re-reclassified as a class B drug, in defiance of the relevant statistics.

But leaving aside those quibbles, it remains the case that men on average do cause more accidents, and more expensive accidents. So, the underlying point remains, doesn't it?

Except... insurance premiums aren't based solely on the statistical model. Insurers are first and foremost businesses, and so a key factor in their equations is how much the customer will be willing to pay.

(As an experiment, when you get your renewal premium, phone up your provider and tell them Admiral have offered the same cover for £20 less. If your premium is based purely on the statistical model, their response has to be, "That's nice." I'm sure they won't mysteriously find that new and cheaper alternatives have just opened up.)

(Caveat: don't do this if your current insurer is Admiral!)

Then there are the usual marketing tools.

Consider introductory discounts. Your current insurer has at least 12 months of detailed data about your driving habits and claims history. Over time, they get a clear picture of exactly where in your category you sit. A new insurer does not have this data, so has to be more conservative - the risks are simply greater. Because of this, it should always be cheaper to continue with your current insurer. Somehow, though, it never is.

We also get the cross-promotions. Why is it cheaper to insure me as a driver if you're also insuring my home and contents? The one simply has no bearing on the other. It's not even as if they can claim reduced administraion costs - they're completely different departments!

And that's the crux of it: as soon as insurers stop using purely statistical means to arrive at quotes, the justification that discrimination is based on statistics loses its meaning. They charge what they charge because they can, because people expect it, and because they have no option but to pay.

If we're serious about equality, this was the correct ruling.

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