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Car accident? Here's how much your rates could rise

Getting in a car accident is bad enough. Many drivers involved in a wreck also worry that they'll be hit with higher car insurance rates for years to come.

A new study appears to validate those concerns. The report, from insuranceQuotes.com, finds that drivers who make just one claim end up paying an average of 41 percent more for car insurance.

The study aims to get at one of the great mysteries for drivers. Will my insurance rates increase after a fender-bender? Insurance companies rarely give concrete answers to the question because they use many factors determine a rate increase, including a person's driving history, who was at fault in the accident and how serious the accident was.

For their study, researchers at insuranceQuotes.com decided to see how rates changed for a hypothetical 45-year-old female driver who is married with a job and an excellent credit score. The driver has never had a lapse in coverage or filed any previous auto insurance claims.

She might seem like a pretty good customer for an insurance company, but that didn't stop insurers from raising her rates. The researchers looked at how the woman's annual premiums could change after filing three different claims: bodily injury, property damage and a comprehensive claim. That last one covers damage to a car that isn't caused by an accident, including hail, flooding and theft.

In general, the study found, drivers who make a single claim of $2,000 or more can expect their premiums to increase by 41 percent. That translates to a $335 increase for the average U.S. auto insurance premium of $815 a year. For the unfortunate souls who make two claims in one year, the increase jumps to 93 percent.

"Many consumers underestimate the consequences of making claims because they can affect your rate for years," said Laura Adams, a senior analyst at insuranceQuotes.com. "If you get a premium hike for making a small claim, that could hurt your finances over the long run."

What if the accident wasn't your fault? Then your payments shouldn't be affected, the researchers said.

The amount of a premium increase varies from state to state. In Massachusetts, drivers see a cringe-inducing spike of 76 percent after filing one claim. But Maryland drivers might see their premiums rise by just 22 percent.

States with stricter insurance regulations tend to have larger rate spikes after an accident, the study reports. Why? Consider the case of California, which passed a law mandating that insurance premiums be based only on three things: driving safety record, miles driven per year and years of driving experience. A car accident blows one of those factors -- the driving safety record -- out of the water, and insurers don't have much else to go on to determine rates.

But states like Maryland are allowed to include many more factors in determining rates, including gender, age, occupation and credit score (and here's a look a how your ZIP code could affect your car insurance premium).

The study also found that bodily injury claims, in which people are injured from the accident, are the most expensive for drivers.

Obviously, a driver never wants to file a bodily injury claim. But here are five states in which you especially don't want to have a bodily injury claim of $2,000 or more:

California: The average premium increase after such a claim was 86 percent.
Massachusetts: 83 percent.
New Jersey: 69 percent.
North Carolina: 58 percent.
Minnesota: 52 percent.
These states had the smallest average premium increase for a bodily injury claim:

Maryland: 22 percent
Michigan: 25 percent
Montana: 27 percent
Oklahoma: 27 percent
Mississippi: 28 percent
Here's one bright spot in all of this. Those premium increases aren't permanent. They generally last for three to five years, and will then start to drop to the pre-claim levels.

"If you don't like that, shop around," said Mike Barry, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, in the study. "Different insurers treat prior claims differently, so you could end up with a better deal elsewhere."

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