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Don’t Forget the Risks of Car Sharing

If you live in an urban area, owning a car can be both expensive and a hassle. Finding a parking spot may rival finding Osama Bin Laden in its difficulty. Paying for parking can leave a major hole in your wallet. Due to the sheer number of drivers on the road, insurance costs tend to be higher in large cities. Fuel economy suffers during city driving because of the relatively slow speeds and frequent stops. Consequently, many city dwellers are saying no to car ownership and relying on alternatives. Mass transit remains an essential option, but a relatively new idea is taking hold in U.S. cities: car sharing.

According to CarSharing.net, at the beginning of 2010 there were 27 car sharing programs in the U.S., serving 388,000 members and sharing 7,500 vehicles. They go by names like Zipcar, Car2go, City CarShare, and Community Car. The programs charge an annual membership fee and may charge an application fee; Zipcar, for example charges a $50 annual fee and a $25 application fee in the Washington, D.C. area. A separate fee applies for each use of a car (for example, $30 for a four-hour reservation), which covers gas, insurance, and a specified number of miles. When a member needs a car, she reserves one by phone or online; the program directs her to a parking spot where she will find the car. She unlocks the car (Zipcar issues a “zipcard” to members, allowing them to unlock the vehicle by holding the card up to the windshield); the keys are inside. She uses the car and returns it to a designated parking spot by the end of her reservation time.

The types of people likely to use a car sharing service include:

  • Those who normally use public transportation but who need their own vehicle on occasion
  • Those who own one car and occasionally need a second
  • Those who own cars but occasionally need a larger vehicle
  • Those who can’t afford to buy a car but can afford the membership fees
  • Those who want to avoid the inconvenient parts of car ownership, such as maintenance, fees, and storage costs
  • Environmentalists concerned about the pollution that comes with car ownership

A person using a car sharing service takes risks similar to those she would take while renting a car. She may incur legal liability for injuring someone or damaging another’s property while using the car. She may suffer injuries in an accident, resulting in medical expenses and lost income. She may damage the vehicle and become responsible for repair costs. The car sharing service provides liability insurance, but the borrower has no guarantee that the amount of insurance will be enough to cover all the damages. Also, that insurance may not apply if she lets an unauthorized person drive, such as a “designated driver” during a night on the town. If she does not own a car, she may want to buy a named nonowner auto insurance policy, which will cover liability, medical, and uninsured or underinsured motorist losses over and above what the car sharing service’s policy provides. Also, certain umbrella liability policies may cover damage to a borrowed vehicle if the car sharing service’s policy does not pay. A professional insurance agent can identify insurance companies that offer these types of coverages and explain the differences in coverage and cost of the various policies.

For people living in areas where it is available, car sharing may be a very sensible alternative to owning a car. Like any special service, it carries certain risks. However, by making some simple arrangements ahead of time, drivers can take advantage of these services and be confident that they’ve limited their financial risks.