As automobile insurance companies start offering Massachusetts drivers new options starting April 1, deal-seekers can begin shopping for the best rates.
But drivers may not realize they can lower their premiums through unusual discounts that have nothing to do with their driving record or how much coverage they want. Does the driver take the MBTA? Does the car have automatic seatbelts and headlights that burn during the day? What about an alarm? Does the driver belong to a PTA group that qualifies for a discount rate? Or is the driver a student who gets good grades?
Drivers need to ask agents lots of questions to make sure they are comparing similar policies and taking advantage of every discount they can, said Kevin Kroner, the Massachusetts Division of Insurance's director of external relations.
"The companies are going to be competing for your business," Kroner said. "If you don't compare companies, you are not going to get the best price."
To be sure, there are some parts of auto insurance that drivers can't skimp on. All Massachusetts drivers must have policies protecting for bodily injury against others of up to $20,000 per person and $40,000 per accident. They also need personal injury protection that pays some lost wages and up to $8,000 in medical expenses, plus coverage against bodily injury caused by uninsured vehicles, and a minimum $5,000 coverage for damage to others' property.
Beyond that, the options vary and include everything from collision insurance to towing and substitute transportation if the car breaks down. Drivers who travel outside of the state may seek additional coverage as well.
Thrifty drivers can lower their rates by increasing their deductible - the amount they pay out of pocket before the coverage kicks in. And they may skimp on collision insurance if the vehicle is not worth much.
Still, specialists caution that trimming savings off premiums isn't always good in the long run. "It's not all about money," said Jeanne Young, personal insurance lines manager with Boston's Dwight Rudd & Co. "It's about being well protected."
Instead, drivers may want to consider saving with discounts that won't affect coverage, just the bills. Massachusetts' laws require some mandatory discounts:
Those 65 and older are eligible for reductions, as are vehicles driven only by those with more than six years experience behind the wheel.
Airbags, automatic seat belts, and some antitheft devices can lead to discounts on some portions of the coverage.
Insuring multiple vehicles with the same company can also drop rates.
Those who drive less than 5,001 miles a year receive discounts, and companies may offer additional savings for other mileage cutoffs.
Beyond the required discounts, companies also offer other ways to save:
Drivers who use public transportation to commute may be able to save.
People who insure their home and their vehicles with the same company may receive a discount.
Those who belong to certain groups such as AAA or an alumni group may also qualify for discounts.
The Governor's Auto Theft Strike Force will etch the vehicle's identification number into windows, making the vehicle less appealing to thieves - and eligible for some discounts.
Kroner recommends asking agents and companies for a list of every available discount and the amount saved. Compare similar policies with different companies, then be sure to compare the final quote.
But those considering switching to a new insurer may want to wait until their current policies expire, he said. Otherwise they could have to pay what is called a short-rate penalty that could negate the savings earned from switching to a new insurer. At least one insurer is offering to pay this fee, however, for consumers who make the switch to that company.
And drivers should check with their current company before they jump to a new carrier, said John Paul, a spokesman for AAA Southern New England. Many insurers offer loyalty discounts to keep their clients.
"These companies want your business," Kroner added.