The COVID-19 pandemic comes with a bright spot for workers compensation insurers: Fewer workers are being injured in motor vehicle accidents.
A research brief issued by the National Council on Compensation Insurance last week projects that workers compensation claims caused by motor vehicle crashes will decline to correspond with a decrease in miles driven as workers continue to practice social distancing.
NCCI Senior Division Executive Jeff Eddinger said until now, motor vehicle accidents have been the only type of work injury that has been growing in frequency. He said actuaries are projecting a decline in those claims because the rate of motor vehicle accident injury claims has been remarkably consistent: two claims per 100 million miles driven.
“It’s the only type of injury where we have actually seen the frequency of the injuries—the frequency of claims—go up over time,” Eddinger said during a telephone interview. Because of COVID-19, “we actually expect to see a downward pressure in work comp claims.”
Motor vehicle accident rate is an important indicator for workers compensation insurers because injuries from vehicle crashes cost on average 80-100 percent more than all claims. Over a five-year period, motor vehicle accident claims accounted for 28 percent of claims above $500,000, but were only 5 percent of all claims. Motor vehicle accidents also accounted for 40 percent of all workers compensation fatalities, according to NCCI.
An NCCI research paper in 2018 showed that motor vehicle accidents increased by 5 percent from 2011 to 2016 while total claims declined by 17.6 percent. Researchers noted that the increase in motor vehicle injuries corresponded with increased usage of smartphones.
Eddinger said the number of claims related to motor vehicle accidents has continued to increase since that report was done—until the pandemic hit.
No hard data yet exists to prove that motor vehicle injuries will decline because of the reduction in driving, but Eddinger said the trend is easy to predict given that the ratio of accidents per 100 miles driven hasn’t wavered over the years.
NCCI, citing U.S. Department of Transportation statistics, said the number of miles driven decreased by 20 percent to 40 percent from March to May 2020 compared the same period in 2019. The decline continued as miles driven in June 2020 were approximately 15 percent below the corresponding figure for June 2019.
That trend did not hold for commercial driving. Federal data shows that the number of miles driven by trucks dropped by about 20 percent, compared to 2019, in April, but climbed back and exceeded the miles driven in June. Since then the miles driven by trucks has been comparable to 2019 levels.
While trucking may not be impacted, NCCI said a shift to remote workplaces may lead to a permanent decline in mileage for that portion of the workforce. For example, workers in office and clerical classifications have accounted for more than 10 percent of all workers compensation motor vehicle accidents. If that sector continues to work remotely, that will put downward pressure on workers comp claims.
The NCCI data indicates one cause for concern: The number of miles driven decreased more than the number of motor vehicle fatalities. “Consequently, the death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled increased,” the report says.
Analysts who track the personal auto line have noticed similar trends.
A report issued Thursday by CCC Information Systems analyst Susanna Gotsch says that more than 50 percent of people in the U.S. are no longer commuting to work or not working at all. Stanford Economist Nicholas Bloom estimated in June that 42 percent of the U.S. labor force was working from home full-time during shelter-at-home lockdowns and 33 percent were not working at all. Some companies have begun to bring employees back to their offices, but some companies such as Google, General Motors and Ford Motor Co. have pushed the return-to-office date out to the middle of 2021 for many workers.
Also, CCC cites data from Burbio.com, an organization that monitors public school districts, that shows as of early September, 62 percent of U.S. public school students were being taught virtually, while 37 percent were attending in-person full time or only several days per week.
CCC projects that miles driven will remain below normal levels for the rest of 2020, but the decrease in mileage will be less that 5 percent.