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What is high-risk car insurance and who needs it?

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If you’re labeled a high-risk driver, you’ll probably find that buying auto insurance coverage is both more difficult and more expensive than if you were shopping for a standard policy. Drivers can be classified by carriers as high risk because of factors such as age, driving record, or claims history.

Understanding your own high-risk factors and how they impact your insurance premiums is vital to finding the right policy at the right price.

Understanding high-risk car insurance

High-risk auto insurance, also known as non-standard auto insurance, is a type of policy designed for higher risk drivers, or those who have been categorized by the carrier as more likely to get in an accident or file a claim. Each carrier’s definition and threshold of risk varies, but all may factor in your age, driving history, experience on the road, coverage history, and even the vehicle you drive.

Nearly all states require a minimum amount of auto insurance coverage as a condition of owning and driving a vehicle. But because of these risk factors, certain drivers may be forced to purchase a high-risk car insurance policy instead of a standard policy.

Because high-risk drivers are perceived as having a higher probability of claims and/or at-fault accidents, these policies can be more limited in nature and are often more expensive. Not all carriers offer high-risk policies, either, so you may need to shop around for insurance quotes to find the right policy or even shop through your state’s insurance marketplace.

What puts a driver in a high-risk category?

Insurance providers may determine a driver is high-risk who:

  • Has a history of accidents and/or comprehensive claims

  • Has received numerous traffic violations or has been convicted of serious violations like DWI (driving while intoxicated), DUI (driving under the influence), reckless driving, and more

  • Is required by their state insurance department to file an SR-22 certificate following a driver’s license suspension or revocation

  • Has no history of auto insurance or a large gap in coverage

  • Is young and inexperienced behind the wheel, usually age 20 or younger

  • Is age 70 or older

  • Has a below-average credit score, outright bad credit or negative history

  • Drives certain high-value, high-risk, or specialized vehicles such as sports cars or antiques

Read more: How to find affordable car insurance for teens

While some carriers, like Progressive, go out of their way to avoid labeling drivers as "high risk," having one or more of these factors will still influence your auto insurance rates and the types of coverage available to you.

Effects of high-risk classification on car insurance costs

Insurance carriers are all about mitigating risk, which is why your auto insurance premiums are personalized and largely based on these risk factors. If you have enough of these factors — or very serious ones — and are classified as a high-risk driver, your premiums will be even higher.

Insurance companies reason that the more accidents you’ve been involved in, the more likely you are to file a claim in the future. The same goes for drivers who have a history of DUI convictions or multiple speeding tickets, and even for less-serious factors such as limited driving experience or poor credit history.

High-risk classification can follow you for multiple years, meaning multiple years of paying more for car insurance coverage. To keep costs down, you can lower your policy limits and raise your deductible, or opt for liability-only insurance instead of full coverage. But keep in mind that lower coverage levels and higher deductibles can mean higher out-of-pocket expenses if you’re in an accident.

It’s wise to shop around and compare quotes anytime you are in the market for auto insurance coverage. If you’re forced to buy a non-standard policy or have factors that make you a high-risk driver, this is even more important.

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Ways to mitigate your high-risk classification

Being labeled a high-risk driver makes insurance more expensive, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to mitigate costs and reduce your high-risk classification over time.

Improve (or maintain) your driving record. Your driving record includes your history of accidents, moving violations, and previous claims. If you are deemed a high-risk driver due to your driving record, you will need to "wait out" many of these blemishes (most carriers only consider the last three to five years’ worth). Even if your risk status is due to something else, maintaining a clean driving record can only help reduce your premiums and prevent other factors from impacting your coverage options.

Choose a practical vehicle. An unsafe, high-value, or specialty vehicle can increase your premiums and even bump you into a high-risk classification. Instead, consider switching to a safer and/or more practical vehicle. Adding safety features can also help you qualify for discounts on your policy.

Watch your credit score. While a carrier cannot deny you auto insurance coverage due to credit history alone, in many states your credit score can affect your premiums. Make sure that you are maintaining reasonable credit utilization and debt-to-income (DTI) ratios, limiting hard inquiries and new accounts, and avoiding late payments.

Take a defensive driving course. Many insurance companies offer discounts and rate reductions for drivers who complete defensive driving courses. Anything you can do to show insurance companies you’re a safe driver is a plus.

Don’t let your coverage lapse. If you’re stuck buying a high-risk policy at a higher premium, it can be tempting to forgo coverage altogether. This is especially true if you don’t own your own car or rarely drive. However, a lapse in insurance coverage — regardless of the reason — can actually increase your risk level and, in turn, raise your premiums in the future. Instead of creating a gap in coverage, consider buying a pay-per-mile or liability-only policy, especially if you don’t drive much.

Non-standard insurance and other alternatives

If you’re struggling with exorbitant insurance premiums or to find coverage at all, here are some alternatives to consider.

  • Look into state-run insurance pools. Also known as assigned risk pools, state-run programs help link drivers with carriers willing to offer them coverage after they’ve been denied elsewhere. These policies are still expensive but can provide you with coverage when you haven’t had luck applying directly.

  • Non-standard insurance companies. While high-risk auto insurance is sometimes referred to as a non-standard policy, there are also carriers which are categorized as non-standard insurance companies. These companies specialize in providing coverage to drivers with special concerns or needs, such as those requiring an SR-22 certificate, who are high-risk drivers, or who need a non-owner policy. These carriers often advertise themselves as being geared toward non-standard drivers and include companies like The General and Dairyland.

  • Get added to someone else’s policy. In some cases, it may be cheaper (and easier) to get added to someone else’s existing auto insurance policy as a named driver, especially if you don’t own a vehicle. If you occasionally borrow your parents’ car, for example, they may be able to add you to their policy. Their premiums will likely see a big increase, but this may still be less than you’d pay for your own policy (especially if you’re denied coverage).

If you’re still finding it difficult to secure affordable rates due to your high-risk driver classification, it may be time to call in some professional help. Some insurance agents and brokers specialize in working with high-risk drivers to find and build a policy that meets their needs.