A new poll from R. L. Polk & Co. revealed that 64% of consumers said they were “very or extremely likely” to keep their current vehicle longer than they normally would due to economic conditions. Additionally, Polk reported that the average length of ownership of both new and used vehicles increased from a little more than three years in 2002 to nearly four years in 2008, a 24% increase.

Travelers is seeing the same trend: Customers are keeping their older vehicles longer. A higher number of older cars on the road increases risk, and underscores the importance of having the proper coverage.

“People tend to think there is a big difference between insuring a new car versus an older one,” said William Pearse, VP of product strategy and design for Travelers. “The fact is, regardless of the age of the vehicle, your insurance goals are the same; protect yourself, your family and your assets in the event of damage to your car, another car or injury to any passengers or others.”

Since older vehicles are typically lower in value, some owners purchase the minimum insurance possible. While that is an option, Pearse explains that purchasing the minimum coverage can create significant financial exposure, including the possibility of losing assets such as a home, other vehicles or savings in the event of an accident. Pearse says that’s a risk many people with older cars don’t want to take so they purchase additional coverage.

People with older vehicles might also consider higher deductibles for collision and comprehensive coverages (collision covers damage from a collision, comprehensive covers theft and damage not involving a collision with another car). Higher deductibles may reduce insurance costs but Pearse says it’s important to remember that the higher the deductible, the greater the out-of-pocket expenses will be if the car is damaged and needs repair.

“Another consideration is that older cars can be a hazard on the road if maintenance on critical parts like tires, brakes and suspension is deferred,” added Pearse. “Routine maintenance should never be deferred, and with older cars, it’s also important to have sufficient limits on coverages such as bodily injury and property damage. It’s a quick call to your agent to make sure you have the right type and amount of insurance coverage.”

Encouragingly, regular maintenance is top of mind with respondents in the Polk survey. Specifically, 81% said they planned to take better care of their vehicle to keep it running longer. Travelers’ auto claim professionals say there are some maintenance guidelines that can help extend the life of an older car. They include:

• Oil and transmission services: Without a good lubricant, parts of the engine and transmission rub together and wear each other out which could lead to a costly repair.

• Timing belts: A broken timing belt can leave you stranded and cost hundreds to repair. Check for signs of wear, such as cracks, shredding or excessive slack. For vehicles with interference engines, if a timing belt breaks or jumps a notch, the engine valves may open at the wrong time possibly causing hundreds of dollars in damage.

• Water pumps: Water pump failure is fairly common during the life of the vehicle. Some tell tale signs of failure include a coolant leak inside the car or on the ground, the temperature gauge running hotter than normal or a screeching sound when you start the car.

• Brake pads: A high-pitched squealing when braking may mean excessive brake-pad wear. Other symptoms can include the vehicle pulling to one side when braking, the brakes grabbing or a “soft” brake pedal. A grinding sound could mean worn brake pads are damaging the brake rotors.

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