Although allegations of gasoline-price gouging have received most of the attention since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait last summer, oil companies are not the only auto-related industry accused of reaping a windfall from the Mideast crisis.
An insurance industry study, made public during a North Carolina regulatory proceeding recently, has touched off a public relations and lobbying battle whose outcome could have important consequences for consumers.
The debate not only highlights the immense costs involved in auto insurance, it also demonstrates the complex problems that confront regulators when they seek to keep premiums at affordable levels while providing insurers with a fair rate of return.
At issue is whether insurance rates should be rolled back to reflect reduced driving that results from higher gasoline prices.
The study, which was done by the Insurance Services Office Inc. (ISO), an industry organization that gathers data to help companies in setting rates, finds that costs to insurers from accident claims would be lower under any crisis scenario -- ranging from a rapid return to normal to a serious war -- than they would be had there been no problem in the Mideast.
Such a reduction would result in savings ranging from $4 billion to $30 billion if state regulators continue with "rate making as usual," according to J. Robert Hunter of the National Insurance Consumer Organization in Alexandria.
Hunter calls these potential "windfall profits," and is urging regulators across the country to "protect America from price gouging during this crisis."
The industry, which disputes Hunter's figures, replies that the Mideast oil crisis probably won't actually decrease the cost of auto insurance claims. At best, according to ISO officials, the study shows that reductions in driving would slow the upward trend in claims costs.
"Overall insurance costs were projected to rise over the next few years by 7 to 10 percent" if nothing had happened in the Mideast, said June Bruce of ISO. "If any of the scenarios occurs, it could moderate that rise, but it wouldn't eliminate it."
The four scenarios considered:
A peaceful resolution of the crisis followed by a rapid return to normal.
A stalemate through the end of 1993.
A short, "mild war" that causes little damage to oil-producing facilities.
A "serious war" with wide destruction that propels oil prices to $75 a barrel.
All four scenarios would result in a decline from projections in auto insurance claims in the short run, with a serious war producing the greatest cut relative to the no-crisis base line.
But in almost all cases, these costs rebound to pre-crisis levels or higher by the end of 1993.
The study draws its conclusions by looking at what happened during the oil shocks of the 1970s. On the one hand, people cut their fuel use by car pooling, taking public transit, driving slower and simply driving less. These factors tended to cut car use and thus insurance claims.
On the other hand, people also switched to smaller cars, which have poorer safety records. And higher fuel costs added to overall inflation, which pushed up the costs of repairs and medical treatment.
"The many opposing forces leading to increases or decreases in insurance costs during an oil crisis cause uncertainty in projecting future costs," the study concludes in what might charitably be described as an understatement.
Under the circumstances, though, the industry has an interest in emphasizing this uncertainty as much as possible. Auto insurance rates have become a political issue in many states, and the industry is anxious to disparage any suggestion that costs are coming down when rates are not.
"Any effort to lower insurance prices to reflect the energy situation is likely to be based on speculative considerations," said ISO Vice President John Kollar. "The wide variety of outcomes argues against hasty action." In other words, don't cut rates just yet.
Consumer advocate Hunter, for his part, notes that the "ISO has historically consistently attempted to maximize insurance prices," so the situation is probably better for insurers than the report indicates.
What you have here is two sets of informed observers looking at the same data in the some report and coming to opposite conclusions, which is one reason that setting fair insurance rates has proven such tricky business. That is particularly true in many states where insurance commissioners are so lacking in money and resources that it is doubtful they can do much more than guess which analysis is likely to be closer to the truth. Unfortunately, billions of consumer dollars ride on their decisions.