AAA angered Tesla owners, and the car maker itself, with its recent announcement that it will increase insurance rates 30 percent for Tesla drivers. The reason, AAA says, is that Tesla owners make insurance claims more often than owners of other cars in the same class, and claim amounts are higher than average as well. Other insurers may or may not impose similar premium hikes on Teslas.

Tesla has disputed AAA's research, and emailed this statement to Automotive News: "This analysis is severely flawed and is not reflective of reality. Among other things, it compares Model S and X to cars that are not remotely peers, including even a Volvo station wagon."

I think we can all agree that there's little similarity between a Volvo station wagon and any model Tesla. That said, statistics do seem to show that Tesla owners get into more accidents, on average, than other drivers. Before making its decision, AAA reviewed quite a lot of data, not only its own information about crashes and claims, but also data from the Highway Loss Data Institute, which gathers a wide range of information. The Institute evaluates cars not only against their own class but also against the average of all vehicles. Teslas fared poorly in both comparisons. "Teslas get into a lot of crashes and are costly to repair afterward. Consumers will pay for that when they go to insure one," Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, (which runs the Highway Loss Data Institute) told Automotive News.

It would be surprising if Tesla drivers weren't among the worst drivers on the road. That's for one simple reason: Teslas are expensive, starting at $68,000 for the most basic Model S. Sadly, there's plenty of evidence that the wealthier you are, the meaner you're likely to be, and the more likely you are to disregard the welfare of others.

That tendency comes out when wealthy people are behind the wheel. Researchers at UC Berkeley decided to test the widely held belief that BMW drivers are ruder than most and they conducted a fascinating experiment that involved watching people's behavior at four-way stop signs and also sending pedestrians out to start crossing the street and observing whether oncoming cars stopped and gave them the right of way (which is legally required in California). In both tests, they not only found that BMW drivers are indeed rude, but that the most polite drivers were those driving beat-up old tin cans.

They also found that, the more your car can be seen as a status symbol, the likelier you are to keep driving when you see a pedestrian is about to cross the street, and to go ahead of others at a stop sign when it is not your turn. Interestingly, this bad behavior also extended to people driving the Toyota Prius which isn't a luxury car, but is considered a status symbol in many ecologically-minded places because it is the most widely recognized hybrid there is. Although Teslas didn't show up in the UC Berkeley research, the car carries a status double whammy: It's evidence of both concern for the planet and wealth. So it seems logical enough that Tesla drivers might be ruder than most, and thus likelier to get into fender benders. Exactly what the the Highway Loss Data Institute statistics suggest.

Things should get better.

But if Tesla owners have to pay a premium on insurance today, that disadvantage shouldn't last for long. For one thing, the power of the Tesla as status symbol should diminish over time. More older and used Teslas on the road and the presence of the $35,000 Model 3--which may start selling this summer--will dispel the notion that if you're driving one you must be rich. On top of that, auto makers from Nissan to Chevrolet to Smart to Kia (and, yes, BMW) have all come out with their own electric vehicles, and the Nissan Leaf in particular is an increasingly common sight. Over time, ubiquitous EVs will reduce a Tesla owner's ecological bragging rights.

Then there's Autopilot, Tesla's self-driving feature. After Autopilot was implicated in a fatal accident last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ( NHTSA) launched a six-month investigation into the suite of features and found that they actually make driving safer (as Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed all along). One Autopilot feature, Autosteer, reduces accidents by 40 percent, the NHTSA found. In fact, the auto insurance company Root offers a discount for Teslas that have Autosteer. As self-driving or semiautonomous features become more common and help motorists avoid accidents, insurance companies will eventually take note and provide premium discounts for those who have--and use--these features.

In other words, if you're wealthy, you're likely to be a bad driver--but you can probably afford to buy a car that's a better driver than you.

Published on: Jun 6, 2017
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