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The coronavirus pandemic has been costly to Michigan's transportation economy, exacting a high price in lost auto sales and plant shutdowns.

But if there's any glimmer of a bright side, the COVID-19 economy has had some unexpected benefits for motorists: Gasoline can be had for under a dollar a gallon at some pumps as demand plummets. A few auto insurers have actually promised rebates on premiums because people are driving less due to stay-at-home orders. A reduction in crashes and traffic fatalities goes hand-in-hand with those reduced miles.

And in states where new cars still can be sold — Michigan is not among them — automakers are offering no-interest financing and record discounts. Buyers can expect those deals to continue as the country emerges from an enforced spring hibernation.

Allstate, Liberty Mutual and GEICO all announced premium rebates or reductions this week.

On average, Allstate estimates personal auto insurance customers will receive 15% paybacks on their April-May monthly premiums. Liberty Mutual echoed Allstate with 15% refunds on two months of premiums for a total of $250 million returned to consumers nationally. GEICO, which does relatively little business in Michigan despite the omnipresence of its spokesgecko, said it would give 15% discounts for policy renewals between April 8 and October 7.

"As society works together to slow the spread of COVID-19, there are more people at home, driving less and having fewer accidents,” Allstate CEO Tom Wilson said on the company’s website. “Given this decline in driving, we are announcing the Allstate Shelter-in-Place Payback of more than $600 million in April and May."

Some consumer advocates were unimpressed by those discounts. ValChoice, a New York-based consumer advocacy outfit, said Allstate’s payout should be $2 billion – five times its promise.

“Auto insurance companies could receive outsized profits due to COVID-19. These consumers should demand refunds to improve their cash flow during these difficult economic times,” said Dan Karr, CEO and founder of ValChoice.

But industry insiders say it’s too early to know the frenetic COVID-19 economy’s impact on their costs, and companies are trying to do the right thing amidst the crisis to maintain customer relations. In addition to rate discounts, many carriers have voluntarily placed moratoriums on cancellations. And what it means for Michigan is unclear.

“Michigan's auto insurance market is challenging, which includes the upcoming July no-fault reform,” said Chuck Whitelam, chief operating officer of Hershey Insurance Group, an independent agency based in Troy. “Announced insurance refunds still need to pass regulatory review. Typically, rates are based on past loss experience, not loss experience in the current term and not on such a broad range of risks. As many things at this time, this is unprecedented.”

Judging by the experience of other countries hit by the pandemic, car insurance claims could be down as much as 30%, though insurers warn that wide-open roads can lead to more catastrophic, high-speed accidents than the typical fender-benders incurred in heavy commuter traffic. According to Streetlight Data, a website that collects automotive GPS data for transportation planners, miles traveled are down 71% in Wayne County, 74%in Macomb County and 81% in Oakland County.

Month-to-month fatality statistics from the National Transportation Highway Administration are only available through last fall, and Michigan State Police say their official month-to-month fatality statistics are preliminary.

But a spokesperson said the state’s Traffic Crash Reporting Unit — which catalogs on average 315,000 crashes a year — indicates traffic fatalities are trending down with 30 fewer deaths in March. For the year, traffic fatalities are down 168.

Gas-price data is more current, with prices plummeting since the pandemic hit our shores. Credit an OPEC price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia as well as reduced consumer demand.

The average price of regular gas in Michigan was $1.58 on Wednesday, considerably below the $1.91 nationally. Michigan's price fell 10 cents in a week and 66 cents in a month. Some stations in Detroit are pumping gas for under $1: the Costco in Madison Heights, for instance, had it for 89 cents Wednesday.

With stay-at-home orders limiting customer traffic and shutting down dealer showrooms in most major markets, automakers are doing all they can to attract customers. That won’t benefit Michigan customers, at least for now, as the state has shut down all dealer showrooms and online deliveries.

But in other states, auto data firm Edmunds said buyers can find healthy financing deals on new cars, including no-interest loans, record incentives, and deferred payments. 

Chevrolet, for example, is offering zero-interest loans and 120 days of deferred payments. Jeep is extending 0% loans on select models with no payments for 90 days. And Ford is offering 90 days of deferred payments on some models with the first three months of payments as bonus cash.

Dealers are also writing record numbers of 84-month lease terms to keep buyers coming. Average vehicle incentives hit a record $5,100 the first week of April with J.D. Power reporting the biggest incentives — $7,300 — targeted at pickup truck sales, since they are the Detroit Three’s profit-drivers. Dealer inventories are strong.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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