An Introduction to Car Insurance: What It Is and Why You Need It

Learn what car insurance is, why you need it, how and where to buy it, and the different factors that impact the price you pay

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A brief history of car insurance

The concept of insurance dates back thousands of years, with early forms of it being traced to merchants and traders who sought to minimize losses on seafaring voyages. However, the idea of car insurance is a relatively modern development, coinciding with the advent of the automobile.

The first known car insurance policy was issued in Dayton, Ohio in 1897 to Gilbert Loomis, who bought a liability policy to cover his automobile, which he had designed and built himself. This policy protected him against claims if his car injured another person or damaged their property.

Pre-1920 auto accident As cars became more common in the early 20th century, the number of accidents began to rise, and the need for some form of insurance became more apparent. This led to the first policies that resemble the comprehensive auto insurance we know today.

Later, as cars became faster and more complex, insurance policies evolved to cover a wider range of scenarios, including theft, vandalism, and natural disasters. Insurance companies also started to bundle different types of coverage, giving consumers the ability to customize their insurance to their needs.

Today, car insurance is a highly regulated industry with a multitude of coverage options, reflecting the complexities of modern driving.

Innovations in technology, such as telematics, have introduced usage-based insurance policies, which can track driving behavior and offer premiums based on individual risk profiles.

Additionally, the growth of ridesharing and the onset of autonomous vehicles continue to push the evolution of car insurance.

What car insurance is

Car insurance is a contract between you and an insurance company where you pay a periodic fee, known as a premium, in exchange for financial protection against financial losses stemming from car-related incidents.

This contract is typically outlined in a policy that specifies what circumstances are covered, such as accidents, theft, vandalism, and natural disasters, and to what extent those circumstances are covered.

In its most basic form, car insurance is designed to help cover the costs of unexpected expenses due to car accidents or other vehicle damage. This can include covering repair costs for your vehicle, medical expenses for injuries sustained by you or others, and even legal defense if you’re sued as a result of an accident.

What car insurance is NOT

Car insurance is not a blank check for all car-related expenses. It does not cover the costs of regular maintenance and mechanical failures unless they result directly from a covered incident.

It’s also not a permission slip for reckless driving. Premiums can increase following traffic violations or accidents.

Additionally, car insurance doesn’t automatically replace the vehicle at its original purchase value in the event of damage. It pays out based on the vehicle’s depreciated value at the time of the claim.

It’s important to understand that each policy has specific terms, conditions, and exclusions that define what is and is not covered.

Brief introduction to the basic coverages of a policy

A car insurance policy isn’t just a singular product, but rather it’s a bundle of different types of protections, each designed to safeguard against diverse scenarios involving your vehicle.

From the mandatory basic liability coverage that protects other drivers from the costs you may cause, to collision and comprehensive coverages that protect your own vehicle, there’s a spectrum of options to consider.

Understanding each type of coverage is crucial in making an informed decision that aligns with your needs and budget.

Below, we’ll break down the essential coverages that make up a typical car insurance policy, explaining the purpose and benefits of each.

Liability Insurance

This is the core of any auto insurance policy, required by law in most places. It covers the costs associated with damage and injury you cause to others if you’re at fault in an accident.

This includes both bodily injury liability (which covers medical expenses, lost wages, and other costs of injuries to others) and property damage liability (which pays for repairs to someone else’s property).

For a detailed explanation of what liability insurance is and how it works, see our Car Insurance 101 article titled Crash Course in Liability Insurance: Hit the Road with Confidence.

Collision Coverage

Collision insurance helps pay to repair or replace your car if it’s damaged in an accident with another vehicle or object, such as a fence or a tree.

This coverage comes into play regardless of who is at fault, and it’s usually required if you have a loan or lease on your vehicle.

Comprehensive Coverage

This coverage helps pay for damage to your vehicle that is not caused by a collision. It’s also known as ‘other-than-collision’ coverage.

This can include things like theft, vandalism, fire, natural disasters (like a hurricane or a tornado), and damage from hitting an animal. It’s optional unless it’s required by your vehicle’s lienholder.

Personal Injury Protection (PIP)/Medical Payments

PIP, also known as no-fault insurance, covers medical expenses and sometimes lost wages and other damages, regardless of who is responsible for the accident.

Medical Payments coverage is similar but more limited and pays for medical and funeral expenses incurred by you or passengers in your vehicle.

Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Protection

This coverage is for when you’re involved in an accident with a driver who doesn’t have sufficient insurance or any at all.

It can cover medical expenses, and, in some cases, damage to your vehicle. In some places, this coverage is mandatory.

Why you need car insurance

Car insurance is important because it provides financial protection against the risks that come with driving a vehicle. Here’s why it’s needed and how it protects you and your assets:

  • Risk of Accidents – No matter how careful you are, there’s always a risk of being involved in a car accident. Insurance helps mitigate the financial impact of these events by covering repair costs, medical expenses, and other damages resulting from a collision.
  • Legal Requirements – Most states require drivers to have at least some form of liability insurance. This ensures that if you cause an accident, you’re able to compensate others for their losses without bearing the full brunt of the costs yourself.
  • Protection of Assets – If you’re found at fault in an accident and don’t have insurance, you are personally liable. This means your assets—like savings, home, and future earnings—could be used to cover the costs. Insurance helps safeguard these assets by covering the expenses up to your policy’s limits.
  • Peace of Mind – Having insurance means you have a financial safety net in place. This can alleviate stress and anxiety associated with the potential costs of a car accident, allowing you to focus on recovery and daily life after an incident.
  • Uninsured Drivers – Even if you’re not at fault, being hit by an uninsured driver can be costly. Your own policy can include coverage for such situations, ensuring you’re not left to foot the bill alone.
  • Non-Accident Damage – Comprehensive coverage protects you from non-accident-related damage such as theft, vandalism, or natural disasters – events that could otherwise lead to significant out-of-pocket expenses.

In essence, car insurance transfers the financial risk from you to the insurance company. It’s a critical tool that allows drivers to take responsibility for their potential impact on others and protects them from the unpredictable nature of driving and owning a vehicle.

Steps involved in buying a car insurance policy

Purchasing a car insurance policy is a multi-step process that involves assessing your insurance needs, understanding different coverage options, shopping for rates, and then agreeing to the terms of a policy.

Here’s a breakdown of what this process typically entails:

1. Assess Your Needs

  • Evaluate Vehicle and Driving Habits – Consider the type of car you have, how often you drive, and what you use your car for.
  • Identify Risks – Think about the risks you face, such as heavy urban traffic, weather-related hazards, or a history of vehicle break-ins in your area.
  • Determine Asset Protection Level – Reflect on your financial situation and assets. How much can you afford to lose in case of an accident?

2. Understand Coverage Options

  • Liability Coverage – Understand the minimum required liability coverage in your state, which typically includes bodily injury liability and property damage liability.
  • Optional Coverages – Learn about collision coverage, comprehensive coverage, uninsured motorist coverage, personal injury protection (PIP), and other add-ons like roadside assistance.

3. Shop for Rates

  • Quote Comparison – Obtain quotes from multiple insurance companies to compare rates. Be prepared to provide personal information, vehicle details, and your driving record.
  • Discounts – Inquire about discounts for things like multiple vehicles, good driving records, defensive driving courses, or safety features on your car.

4. Select a Policy

  • Review Quotes – Look at the coverage each policy offers, not just the price. Cheaper isn’t always better if it leaves you underinsured.
  • Read the Fine Print – Understand the policy details, including coverage limits, deductibles, exclusions, and how claims are handled.

5. Purchase the Policy

  • Provide Documentation – You may need to provide your driver’s license, registration, and possibly a vehicle inspection.
  • Choose Deductibles – Decide on the amount you can afford to pay out of pocket if you make a claim.
  • Finalize the Purchase – Once you’ve chosen your policy, you’ll sign the agreement and pay the first premium.

6. Proof of Insurance

  • Insurance Card – You will receive an insurance card or a digital proof of insurance to keep in your vehicle.

7. Policy Management

  • Payment Schedule – Set up your payment schedule – whether it’s monthly, semi-annually, or annually.
  • Policy Documents – Safely store your policy documents for future reference.

Remember, when purchasing car insurance, it’s important to balance affordability with adequate coverage. Make sure you fully understand your policy and feel confident that it will protect you and your assets in the event of an accident or loss.

Online vs. agent: Finding your best car insurance fit

When it comes to purchasing car insurance, there are several avenues available including buying online, buying from an independent insurance agent, or buying from a captive agent.

Each route has its own set of benefits, and the best choice depends on the customer’s individual preferences regarding convenience, the desire for personal interaction, and the level of assistance needed in making an informed insurance decision.

Buy online vs. independent agent vs. captive agent

Buying online

Buying insurance online is convenient and quick. Insurance companies offer the entire selection process through their websites, allowing customers to get quotes, compare policies, and purchase insurance without ever needing to speak to an agent.

This method often appeals to those who are comfortable with managing their policies electronically and who appreciate the ability to shop at their own pace.

The decision to buy car insurance online should be based on your comfort level with managing your insurance needs digitally and whether the convenience outweighs the potential drawbacks.


  • Convenience – You can shop for car insurance anytime, anywhere, without the need to schedule appointments or visit an insurance office.
  • Speed – The process of getting a quote and purchasing a policy online can be completed in a matter of minutes.
  • Information Access – Online platforms typically provide a wealth of information that can help you make an informed decision, including coverage options, the ability to adjust policy limits and deductibles, and educational resources.
  • No Pressure Sales – You can browse and select a policy without the pressure of dealing with sales tactics that might occur when speaking directly with an insurance agent.
  • Discounts – Some insurance companies offer discounts for policies purchased online due to lower overhead costs.


  • Complex Needs – If you have complex insurance needs or a unique situation, it might be challenging to find the right coverage without professional advice.
  • Personalized Service – While some people may prefer the lack of sales pressure, others may miss the personal touch and detailed guidance that an agent can provide.
  • Understanding Policy Details – It might be more difficult to understand the specifics of a policy without someone to explain the jargon and fine print, potentially leading to insufficient coverage.
  • Technical Challenges – Not everyone is tech-savvy, and navigating an online insurance portal can be confusing for some, making it difficult to complete the purchase process.
  • Claims and Assistance – While buying insurance online is streamlined, dealing with claims and customer service issues may not be as smooth, particularly if there is no local representative to assist you.

Independent Agents

These agents are not tied to any single insurance company, allowing them to offer policies from multiple providers. This means they can compare different policies to find the best deal for their clients.

Independent agents can provide personalized advice based on an individual’s specific needs and help navigate the complexities of various insurance products.

When choosing whether to buy from an independent agent, consider the value you place on advice and personal service versus the potential for lower rates and speedier service online.


  • Personalized Service – Independent agents provide personalized service, taking the time to understand your individual needs and recommending policies that match your circumstances.
  • Multiple Options – They represent multiple insurance carriers, allowing them to compare different policies and find competitive rates with varied coverage options.
  • Expertise – Independent agents often have a broad understanding of the insurance market and can navigate its complexities to advise you on the best coverage.
  • One-stop Shopping – They can handle all your insurance needs, including home, auto, life, and business policies, making the management of your insurance more convenient.
  • Long-term Relationships – Building a relationship with an agent can lead to better service over time as they become more familiar with your needs and history.


  • Time-Consuming – The process can be slower than buying online since you’ll likely need to have several conversations and meetings before settling on a policy.
  • Bias Towards Certain Insurers – While independent, some agents might favor certain carriers due to better commissions or relationships, which could influence the options they present to you.
  • Costs – Sometimes the prices may be higher compared to buying directly from an insurer or online due to the additional services agents provide.
  • Varying Expertise – Not all agents have the same level of expertise or access to a wide range of insurers, which can affect the quality and variety of your options.
  • Availability – You are limited to the agent’s hours of operation, which might not offer the same 24/7 convenience as online purchasing.

Captive Agents

A captive agent works exclusively for one insurance company and sells only that company’s policies.

While they may not offer the variety of options that independent agents can, they are typically very knowledgeable about their company’s product line and can help customers make informed decisions based on the range of products their company offers.

Choosing a captive agent may be preferable for those who have a strong loyalty to a particular brand and value a direct line to their insurance provider.

However, it’s important to weigh these pros against the potential drawbacks of less competitive pricing and a lack of comparison shopping.


  • Brand Familiarity – Captive agents represent insurers that are often well-established brands with reputations for reliability and customer satisfaction.
  • Product Knowledge – They possess in-depth knowledge of their specific company’s insurance products, which can ensure you get the most out of the policy features and benefits.
  • Dedicated Support – Because they represent one insurer, captive agents may offer a more consistent customer service experience and direct support for claims with that company.
  • Personalized Relationships – Like independent agents, captive agents can build personal relationships with their clients, providing a familiar point of contact.
  • Potential Discounts and Bundling – Captive agents can access all the discounts that their insurer offers and can easily bundle various types of insurance from the same company, potentially saving money.


  • Limited Options – Since they only represent one insurer, they cannot provide as many options for coverage and rates as an independent agent might.
  • Potential for Higher Costs – Without the ability to compare multiple insurers, you might end up paying more for insurance than if you had shopped around.
  • Sales Pressure – Captive agents might face pressure to meet sales targets from their parent company, which could influence their recommendations.
  • Changing Companies Means Changing Agents – If you decide to switch to a different insurance company, you cannot retain the same agent, as they are tied to a specific insurer.
  • Hours of Operation – Similar to independent agents, they have set business hours, which can be less convenient than the 24/7 options available online.

How car insurance premiums are determined

Understanding the car insurance landscape and how rates are determined can help you make more informed decisions.

car insurance rate factors

The list below contains some general information on the factors that affect car insurance rates.

  • Driving Record – Drivers with clean records can expect to pay significantly less for car insurance. For instance, after a single speeding ticket, premiums can increase by 25% or more.
  • Driver Gender – Statistically, men often pay slightly more for car insurance than women, particularly when they are younger, due to higher accident rates among young men.
  • Driver Age – Young drivers, particularly teenagers, can pay more than double the average premiums due to their higher risk of accidents. Rates typically decrease as drivers gain more experience, with the lowest rates often found for drivers in their 50s.
  • Where You Live – The cost of insurance varies by state due to differences in laws and accident rates. For example, Louisiana and Michigan have been known to have some of the highest average premiums, while states like Maine and Iowa are among the lowest.
  • Type of Vehicle – The make and model of your vehicle significantly impact the price you pay for car insurance. High-performance vehicles or luxury cars typically cost more to insure compared to economy models due to higher repair costs and the likelihood of theft.
  • Marital Status – Married couples often receive lower rates than single drivers. Statistics show that married drivers are involved in fewer car accidents than single drivers, leading to an average reduction in premiums.
  • Credit Score – Many insurers use credit scores as a factor when determining premiums. A lower credit score can increase car insurance costs, while a higher credit score can lower them.
  • Deductibles – Choosing a higher deductible can lower your premium. On average, increasing a deductible from $500 to $1,000 can reduce collision and comprehensive coverage costs by 15-30%.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of factors that can affect your policy premium. These are just some of the ones that have the biggest impact.

Each insurer has their own unique formula for pricing car insurance, and there can be many, many more factors that all contribute to the bottom line.

See How Insurance Companies Calculate Car Insurance Premiums for an in-depth look at how car insurance premium is calculated as part of our Car Insurance 101 Educational Series.

Five key takeaways about car insurance

We covered a lot of information in this article, but there are five of the most important things to keep in mind when buying car insurance.

  1. State Requirements – Understand the minimum car insurance coverage required in your state, as nearly all states mandate some level of liability insurance to protect other drivers in case you cause an accident.
  2. Types of Coverage – Familiarize yourself with different types of car insurance coverage such as liability, collision, comprehensive, uninsured/underinsured motorist protection, and personal injury protection, so you can select a policy that meets your needs.
  3. Premium Factors – Know that various factors influence your insurance premium, including your driving record, age, type of vehicle, and even credit score. Lowering your risk profile can lead to lower premiums.
  4. Deductibles and Limits – Be aware that higher deductibles can lower your premiums, but they mean more out-of-pocket expenses in the event of a claim. Similarly, your policy limits should be high enough to protect your assets without overextending your budget.
  5. Discounts and Savings – Look for discounts for which you may be eligible, such as those for safe driving, multiple vehicles, anti-theft devices, and completing defensive driving courses. Always ask your insurance provider about potential ways to save on your policy.

If you apply these five concepts, you’ll ensure you’re legally protected, you’ll get customized coverage at a lower price, and you’ll have financial security in the event of an accident or loss.

About the Author

Ryan GrabensteinDuring his career as an independent insurance agent, Ryan Grabenstein was appointed with Progressive, Allstate, Nationwide, Travelers, and many smaller regional and mutual companies. He has a Bachelor's degree in Finance from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and Certified Insurance Counselor (CIC) personal and commercial lines training.