Prop 17 discourages going car-free

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Efforts to encourage car-sharing and ways of getting around that don’t involve owning a car would be undermined by Proposition 17, a June ballot measure that I wrote about in this week’s cover story. While I didn’t mention that impact in the story, it is of real concern to people like me who don’t own cars and encourage others to try the car-free lifestyle on for size.

The measure, sponsored by Mercury Insurance, allows companies to substantially increase monthly premiums on customers who haven’t had continuous insurance coverage. That would be one more barrier to people making the leap of faith to give up their cars and rely on bicycles or public transit, a switch that ought to be encouraged in increasingly traffic-congested cities such as San Francisco.

As I wrote about in another cover story last year, I made the decision several years ago to give up my car, although I still sometimes rent cars to visit my children. Consumer advocates say the cost of renting cars or using car-sharing services – particularly locally owned companies that can’t self-insure like the corporate behemoths – could increase and there would be a disincentive to consider trying it.

 “Anyone who has used car sharing (or for that matter rental cars) as their means of transportation would almost certainly not be considered continuously insured and would face the Prop 17 surcharge if they had to go back to private insurance at some point,” Doug Heller, an insurance expert with Consumer Watchdog, told me.

Currently, the law allows insurance companies to issue discounts to those who have maintained continuous policies with them (Prop. 17 would expand that to allow drivers to change companies and keep their discounts, which would be offset by surcharges on customers who were new or had a lapse in their coverage), and those companies use that discount to actively try to discourage people from experimenting with car-free lifestyles.

Brian Smith, who works for an environmental nonprofit in Oakland, recalls getting that kind of hard sell when he made the leap and got rid of his car.

 “When I cancelled my car insurance, AAA warned me not to. They said, ‘We will make it much more expensive when you come back.’ I said, ‘I sold my car, I don't need car insurance.’ They said ‘We are just giving you a warning, Sir.’ I said, ‘Cancel it you fucking bastards. I'm never coming back.’ That was 10 years ago.’” Smith wrote to me about the issue.

Proponents of the measure say it would save some drivers $250 per year, while opponents (citing data from Mercury) say the surcharges for everyone else would be about $1,000 per year. So for the soldiers who go off to boot camp, the college students who get an internship in a city with good public transit or bikeways, unemployed individuals who need to trim expenses, or people who want to experiment with going car-free, they would all pay for more for insurance if they went back to driving a car than those who continuously maintained a car-dependent existence.

So, add this to the list of good reasons – and there are many of them in this week’s cover story -- to oppose Prop. 17. 

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