It’s been said that motorists in Ventura County — and all across car-centric Southern California — can’t part with their automobiles. How much of that can be attributed to auto insurance is yet to be seen, although an upcoming ballot measure could change the way people choose to insure themselves, according to supporters and opponents of Proposition 17.

Prop. 17 is a statewide initiative on primary ballots, asking voters to approve changes in the way auto insurers provide discounts to their clients; namely, between those people who’ve maintained continuous coverage, and those who haven’t.

Backers of the measure say that Prop. 17, the “Continuous Coverage Auto Insurance Discount Act,” is needed because it does just that — provides the opportunity for rate discounts to drivers who’ve allowed their insurance coverage to lapse.

Groups like the Alliance of Insurance Agents and Brokers, and local chambers of commerce, also believe Prop. 17, if it passes, will serve to increase market competition because it will allow Californians to shop around for better insurance rates without being penalized for switching companies.

Prop. 17, in effect, is proposed to alter standards set by 1988’s Proposition 103, which disallowed the practice of offering discounts to new clients even if they’ve consistently carried insurance coverage with another carrier.

This lack of “portable persistency,” as it’s called by Prop. 17 supporters, damns motorists both ways: they might like to switch insurers for cheaper rates, but if they do, they’re penalized.

“A lot of people stick with the same company or they lose that discount. It’s a penalty on drivers,” says Kathy Fairbanks of the Yes on Prop. 17 campaign.

“We’re supporting it because we feel it’ll bring insurance rates down and increase competition. That’s good for our business climate and good for consumers, too,” says Brendan Huffman, director of the Chambers of Commerce Alliance for Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

He cites statistics from the Department of Insurance that show that 80 percent of Californians maintain auto insurance and qualify for such a persistency discount, which could save someone an average of $250 per year.

Supporters are also calling the opposing side’s stance an insidious “shell game” meant to unfairly attack Mercury Insurance, the big-name company with a near-$14 million investment behind the measure.

“I think the opponents would like to characterize it as special interest,” says Mike D’Arelli, executive director of the Alliance of Insurance Agents and Brokers. “Truth be told, all insurers in California would like to take advantage of the initiative.”

But Mercury is the culprit, according to No on Prop. 17 campaigners, led by the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog. Its director, Doug Heller, says that it’s rarely mentioned that Prop. 17 would give Mercury and other insurers free will to hand down hefty $1,000 surcharges to drivers — four times the savings touted by Prop. 17 supporters.

The “Stop the Surcharge” campaign frames low-income residents and those affected by the bad economy as the victims. Heller noted that Prop. 17 could result in a spike in more people opting out of being insured, despite never having had a poor driving record or a prior lapse in insurance coverage.

“When they’re back on their feet and trying to get insurance, if they face a Prop. 17 surcharge, they may be stuck driving uninsured, and that’s bad for all of us,” Heller said.

Heller’s group points a finger to blemishes on Mercury’s own record. Last month, an investigation into the insurer’s practices, which was led by state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, concluded that Mercury may have overcharged thousands of state residents on both their auto and homeowners insurance policies.

Added support for Prop. 17 comes from groups like the California Alliance for Consumer Protection, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the 60-Plus Association. Opponents include the California Nurses Association, the California Alliance of Retired Americans and a host of major regional newspapers.

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