How a DUI Affects Car Insurance Coverage & Premiums

Many drivers worry that they will not be able to get car insurance in California after a DUI. But there are always companies willing to issue a policy for any driver with a valid license.

In this article we answer some frequently asked questions about:

  • How to get car insurance after a California DUI, and
  • How to reduce the impact of a DUI on car insurance.

These tips apply to court convictions and/or DMV administrative license suspensions for all of the following:

To help you better understand how to get car insurance after a DUI, our California DUI defense lawyers address the following, below:

man freaking out looking at papers
A California DUI conviction can significantly raise car insurance premiums.

1. Does a DUI arrest have to be reported to car insurance?

There is no legal requirement that a driver notifies his or her auto insurance carrier of a DUI.1 This applies equally to arrests, convictions, and DMV administrative driver's license suspensions.

But Insurance policies require the driver to notify the insurer if the policyholder is in an accident.

And California law requires drivers to notify the DMV (either personally or through an insurer) within 10 days of an accident if the accident results in:

  • Injury to any party (no matter how minor),
  • The death of any individual, or
  • More than $1,000 in property damage.2

2. How does an insurance company learn about a DUI?

There are five general ways in which a California auto insurer can learn of a conviction for driving under the influence:

  1. The company runs a background check when a driver's existing policy comes up for renewal.
  2. The company runs a background check when a driver applies for a new policy.
  3. The driver asks the insurer to send an SR-22 certificate to the California DMV (required to reinstate a suspended license).
  4. The driver self-reports the conviction to the insurer.
  5. The arrest results from an accident and the driver or another party reports it to the insurance company and/or DMV.

We discussed the last of these in Section 1, above. Let's now take a closer look at the other categories.

2.1. The driver's current policy comes up for renewal or the driver applies for a new policy

California law forbids an insurer from canceling an auto insurance policy or raising a premium midterm. So unless a claim has been made, an insurance company will usually only seek out a driver's record:

  • When someone applies for a new policy, or
  • In some cases, when an existing policy comes up for renewal.

In these two situations the company can pull:

  1. The applicant's DMV driving record, and
  2. The applicant's criminal record.

These records will usually show any DUIs going back ten years.

They will also show certain other “wet” violations (such as a Vehicle Code 23103.5 “wet reckless”) for seven years.

Insurers don't always run background checks for policy renewals

The good news is that companies do not always run a background check when a policy comes up for renewal. Here's why:

It costs an insurance company approximately $1.50 to run a background check on a policyholder. That might not seem like much.

But multiply this by the millions of people covered by large insurers. Now it's a significant expense.

So companies typically don't pull background checks for every client on every renewal. They run background checks on new policies and renewals they deem higher risk (based on the factors discussed in Section 4, below).

An insurer is less likely to run a check if:

  • The driver has a long history with the company without any claims, or
  • The driver fits the profile of a low-risk driver.

Keep in mind also that a driver's renewal may come up while DUI charges or a DUI suspension is pending. But if it isn't on the driver's record – or if the insurer doesn't pull the record – that isn't the driver's problem.

The burden is on the insurer to discover the DUI

Remember – unless there was an accident, the burden is on the insurer to discover a DUI. It is not the job of the policyholder to report it. Insurers know this and have worked out optimal algorithms on when to run background checks on renewals.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to say exactly when this is for any company or any given driver. A driver might be offered one or two renewals before an insurer pulls his or her record.

Or the driver company could conduct a background check the first time the policy is due to be renewed. There is just no way to tell for sure.

Eventually, though, the company will probably find out about the DUI.

Drivers can roll the dice and hope the company does not find out right away. Or they can purchase a “standalone SR22 insurance policy.” We discuss such policies in Section 7, below.

2.2. The driver requests an SR-22 certificate

The most common way an auto insurer learns of a DUI is when a driver requests an SR22 certificate. An SR 22 – also known as “proof of financial responsibility” -- is a certificate issued by a driver's auto insurer.

The California DMV requires an SR22 to reinstate a suspended license or issue a new license -- including after a DUI.

What is an SR22 certificate?

An SR 22 certifies that a driver has auto liability insurance that meets California's minimum “15/30/5” limits.

“15/30/5 limits” mean that for any single accident the policy will cover up to:

  • $15,000 for the death or bodily injury of one person;
  • $30,000 total for the wrongful death or bodily liability of all people hurt or killed in the accident; and
  • $5,000 for property damage.3

Many drivers choose to maintain policies with higher limits. 15/30/5 is simply the minimum insurance required under California law.

How to request an SR22 in California

An SR 22 can only be issued by a driver's auto insurer. To get one, a policyholder must request one from the insurance company. The insurer will then complete the form and electronically forward it to the DMV.

Insurance companies generally charge a small fee (typically around $25) to issue an SR-22.

But the company will want to know why the driver is requesting an SR 22. So if the reason was a DUI, the insurer will learn about it.

For this reason, drivers looking to reinstate a suspended license may wish to purchase a “standalone” SR 22 insurance policy. This is a policy of minimum auto insurance purchased from a “DUI-friendly” company other than the driver's current insurer.

While it may seem counterintuitive to buy more insurance to save money on premiums, in some cases it can be beneficial. See Section 7, below, for details.

What is “SR-22 insurance”?

“SR-22 insurance” is not a special type of insurance. It is simply a regular auto policy for which an insurer has issued an SR 22 certificate.

Note that this does not have to be the same policy the driver had when he/she was arrested for, or convicted of, driving under the influence.

All the DMV cares about is that the driver is protected by some policy of auto coverage with limits of at least 15/30/5.

We discuss standalone “SR 22 policies” in Section 7, below.

How can a driver avoid the need for SR 22 insurance?

Unfortunately, there is often no way to avoid the requirement of SR 22 insurance after a DUI other than to avoid driving.

This is because after an arrest for drunk or stoned driving, the DMV will automatically suspend a driver's license unless:

If the driver loses either (or both) proceedings, his/her license will be suspended.

The length of the suspension or revocation will vary depending on:

  • The specific offense, and
  • Whether it is a first or subsequent offense.

But a typical first-time DUI license suspension lasts for six months. Subsequent suspensions – or suspensions of commercial licenses – can last even longer.

Reinstating a suspended or revoked license

At the end of the period of suspension or revocation, the driver can:

  • Reinstate a suspended license, or
  • If his/her license was revoked, apply for a new license.

In either case, the DMV will require an SR22 certificate before it will reinstate driving privileges.

This “SR 22 insurance” must usually be maintained for three years. After the three-year period is up, the DMV will generally no longer require proof of financial responsibility.

Note, however, that the DUI will remain on the driver's record for ten years. This CAN affect the driver's insurability.

insurance agent going over a document with client
A driver may be able to get a better rate after a DUI conviction by discussing options with an experienced California car insurance agent.

2.3. The driver self-reports the conviction to the insurer

Even though California law does not require drivers to report DUIs to their insurers, some drivers might want to report one anyway.

This is because the insurer is likely to learn of the conviction or suspension eventually. Self-reporting gives the driver the opportunity to “get ahead” of the story. He or she will know whether the company is likely to offer a renewal and, if so, how much the premium is likely to increase.

This gives the driver the time and information needed to shop for a policy with a lower rate.

But, this is a risky strategy. We recommend discussing this approach with an experienced California DUI lawyer before trying it.

3. Can my insurer cancel my car insurance after a DUI?

California law forbids an insurer from canceling an auto insurance policy midterm. So an auto insurance company cannot immediately cancel a policy or raise the premium.

But when the policy comes up for renewal, the carrier can legally:

  • Decline to offer a renewal (i.e., cancel the policy),
  • Offer a renewal on different terms, such as a higher premium, and/or
  • Remove a “good driver” discount, if any (in fact, by law, it must do this).4

4. Will a California DUI cause an increase in my auto insurance premiums?

A California DUI will generally result in an increase in higher premiums for car insurance.

The increase will apply to:

  • Any policy the driver applies for with a new insurance company, and/or
  • Any renewal of the driver's existing policy (if the company pulls a new background check).

The higher premium is because a DUI conviction or license suspension classifies the driver as “high risk.” Not all companies are willing to insure high risk drivers. These companies may simply decline to offer a renewal (i.e., “cancel” the policy).

Other companies are more “DUI friendly.” But usually, the premium will reflect the increased likelihood (from the insurer's viewpoint) of the driver getting into a future accident.

What factors go into setting car insurance rates after a DUI?

A driver's record isn't the only consideration when determining car insurance rates. Carriers typically consider other factors, too, including a driver's:

  • Age,
  • Gender,
  • Marital status,
  • Driving experience and driving history,
  • Length of prior coverage without a claim,
  • Place of residence,
  • Length of residence at the same address,
  • Whether the driver owns or rents a home, and
  • Professional organization affiliations.
lady smiling in vehicle
A long history of safe driving may help to keep car insurance rates reasonable after a California DUI.

A lawsuit can negatively affect car insurance rates

One factor that almost always has a negative impact on car insurance premiums is a lawsuit by another driver. For instance, an intoxicated driver might be involved in an accident in which someone is injured. That person might then file a lawsuit against the driver and the driver's insurer.

Such a lawsuit is very likely to cause a spike in premiums, and possibly a non-renewal of the policy.

This is especially true if the driver loses the lawsuit or the company decides to pay money to settle the case.

5. How much more does insurance cost after a DUI?

The increase in premiums after a DUI conviction is hard to predict. Different companies have a higher tolerance for risk. And, as discussed above, many factors go into setting auto insurance rates.

But, on average, premiums can go up by over $2,000 after a California DUI.

Loss of “good driver” discount

The increase in premiums will be most dramatic for drivers that previously had a "good driver" discount.

Under California law, insurance companies may not offer drivers “good driver” discounts for ten years following a DUI. This ten-year period runs from the date of the DUI arrest (not the conviction, assuming there is one).5

This law will obviously not affect a driver who did not have a good driver discount before. But for those who did, the loss of the discount can result in premium increases of 20 to 30%.

To get the best rate, shop around

Regardless of driving history, rates vary greatly between car insurance companies. This includes rates for drivers with a DUI on their record.

We recommend that drivers do their research before settling on a new insurer. Shopping around is the best way to get a policy at the lowest price.

We also suggest that drivers contact the California Department of Insurance to make sure that they are working with an agent or broker who is in good standing.

person dialing a telephone
Calling around to different insurance agents is the best way to keep car insurance rates low after a California DUI.

6. What if a driver can't get insurance after a DUI?

Finding an insurer can be difficult after a DUI but it is always possible. California law requires that all drivers carry auto insurance. 6 As a result, the state has a duty to ensure that everyone can obtain coverage.

There are brokers who specialize in finding policies for drivers who have had a DUI in California.

And people who are unable to find insurance can apply for coverage through the California Automobile Assigned Risk Plan (CAARP).

The California Automobile Assigned Risk Plan (“CAARP”) is a program that matches high-risk drivers with companies willing to insure them. These companies will issue policies to drivers who are unable to obtain high-risk or SR 22 coverage on their own after a DUI.

CAARP coverage can be obtained through any auto insurance agent or broker or by calling 1-800-622-0954.

7. Is it possible to get an SR22 without telling my insurance company?

Unfortunately, an SR22 certificate must come from a driver's auto insurer. But there is no law against a driver having more than one policy.

Many drivers choose, therefore, to purchase a second policy from a DUI-friendly company that is different from their primary insurer.

This is especially true for people who have policies at higher limits than the minimum 15/30/5 limits required by California law.

The new policy will be at the minimum 15/30/5 legally required. This is all the DMV requires.

This allows the new insurer to issue an SR22 for the second policy. The original insurer will not learn about the DUI as a result of requesting the SR 22 for the DMV.

Insurance of this type is sometimes misleadingly called “SR22 insurance.”

How much does it cost to buy “SR22 car insurance” in California?

A secondary “SR22 insurance” policy typically costs $300-$600 for the first year of coverage. The cost will usually go down in the second year since there are unlikely to be any claims against this policy.

Note that the original insurer might still learn of the DUI when the driver's primary policy comes up for renewal. But if that happens – and, as a result, the driver's policy is canceled or the premium is raised too high – the secondary insurance limits can be increased.

And the cost for the new beefed-up policy will usually be lower than what the first insurer quotes because:

  1. The new insurer is a DUI-friendly one, and
  2. The driver will have a claim-free history (albeit a short one) with the new insurer.

Example: Dave owns a home and other assets. So he has a 250/500/100 auto policy as well as a $2,000,000 umbrella policy from a major auto insurer. His auto policy includes a “good driver” discount as well as discounts for having other types of insurance with the company. He has had his auto policy for 15 years without any significant claims.

Dave's policy is set to renew in December. But in April, he gets arrested for a first-time drunk-driving offense. His California DUI defense lawyer is able to get the criminal charge knocked down to a “wet reckless.” But the DMV still suspends his license for six months.

In October, Dave becomes eligible to reinstate his license. To do so he must provide an SR22 to the DMV. Because of Dave's history, there is a good chance his insurer will offer a renewal without pulling Dave's criminal or DMV records.

But if Dave asks for an SR22, his insurer will learn about the DUI for sure. That will cost Dave his good driver discount and probably result in a large increase in his premium.

To avoid this possibility, Dave asks his California DUI lawyer for the name of an broker that represents DUI-friendly companies. The broker finds Dave an affordable SR22 policy” for $350 a year.

Dave's primary policy comes up for renewal and the company does not run a background check. As a result, Dave's strategy of “insuring his insurance” pays off and he saves over several thousand dollars over the next two years.

8. Is it possible to clear a drunk driving charge from a driver's record?

Expunging a California DUI conviction will remove it from a driver's criminal record for most purposes. 7

But it will not erase a driver's California DMV record.

So while there are many benefits of expunging a criminal conviction in California, saving money on car insurance is not one of them.

9. How long will a DUI stay on my driving record?

A conviction or administrative suspension for driving under the influence8 will remain on a driver's California DMV record for 10 years.9

A conviction for a “wet reckless,” “dry reckless,” or “exhibition of speed” (discussed in Section 10, below) remains on a driver's record for seven years.10

The 10-year period also applies to failure to appear (FTA) in court to answer for charges of driving under the influence.

judge holding gavel
Failure to appear in court to answer for California DUI charges will stay on a driver's record for 10 years.

10. How do I get a DUI off of my driving record?

There is no way to remove a DUI from a driver's California DMV driving record. The only way to keep from having a DMV record is to:

  • Request a DMV administrative hearing within 10 days of a DUI arrest, and
  • Prevail at the hearing (or successfully appeal the hearing officer's decision).

Note that there are strict time limits appealing a DMV hearing officer's decision. There is also a fee, which varies depending on where the appeal is being filed.

While it is difficult to win a DMV hearing or appeal, it is not impossible. Retaining an experienced California DUI defense attorney to argue the case can help.

Will the DMV automatically delete my DUI after 10 years?

The DMV will automatically delete a driving under the influence license suspension in ten years (or seven years if the charge was reckless driving or exhibition of speed). The driver does not need to do anything further.

We do recommend, however, that drivers request copies of their criminal and DMV records to be safe. As Santa Barbara DUI defense attorney John Murray11 explains:

"As far as an auto insurer is concerned, once the DMV removes a DUI from a driver's record, it's as if it never happened. By getting a copy of the driving record, a driver can confirm that the DMV has done what it's supposed to. And if the driver's premium went up because of the DUI, the driver can bring the clean record to the attention of his or her insurer. This will ensure that the driver is getting the best rate possible.”

attorney going over document with client
A plea bargain to a California “wet reckless” or “dry reckless” is unlikely to result in lower car insurance premiums, but it will stay on the driver's record for a shorter period of time

11. Will reducing a DUI to a “wet reckless,” a “dry reckless,” or an “exhibition of speed” lower my car insurance premiums?

“Wet reckless,” 12 “dry reckless,” 13 and “exhibition of speed” 14 are common charge reductions in California DUI cases. They are obtained as the result of a plea bargain after a defendant has been charged with driving under the influence.

For the most part, California auto insurers don't treat these charge reductions much differently than an actual DUI. They still count as a moving violation. As such, they add two points to a driver's DMV record (or more if the violation occurred in a commercial vehicle).

This, in turn, affects car insurance rates. Car insurance premiums are based, in large part, on how many “points” are on the policy holder's driving record.

In addition, a “wet reckless” contains a note that alcohol and/or drugs were involved in the offense. An insurance company will, therefore, usually treat this charge the same as one for driving under the influence.

The benefits of a DUI charge reduction

Even if a charge reduction does not help premium rates, there are many long-term benefits to getting one. For one thing, reckless driving and exhibition of speed carry lighter penalties than a DUI.

And unlike a DUI, these reduced charges remain on a driver's record for just seven years (as opposed to ten for a DUI).15

Charged with a DUI in California? Call us for help...

female operator smiling
Call us for help...

If you have been arrested for a DUI in California, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We fight for clients in court and at DMV hearings throughout California.

Call us at 855-LAWFIRM to discuss your case in confidence with an experienced California DUI lawyer.

We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

We also have offices in Las Vegas and Reno that help clients fight DUI charges in Nevada. You may also wish to read our pages on “How a Nevada DUI impacts car insurance” and “SR-22 requirements after a Nevada DUI.”

Legal references:

  1. See California Vehicle Code 23152 VC -- Driving under the influence. This is California's main DUI law. It says nothing about requiring drivers to notify their insurance companies of a DUI arrest.
  2. Vehicle Code 16000(a): “The driver of a motor vehicle who is in any manner involved in an accident originating from the operation of the motor vehicle on a street or highway, or is involved in a reportable off-highway accident, as defined in Section 16000.1, that has resulted in damage to the property of any one person in excess of one thousand dollars ($1,000), or in bodily injury, or in the death of any person shall report the accident, within 10 days after the accident, either personally or through an insurance agent, broker, or legal representative, on a form approved by the department, to the office of the department at Sacramento, subject to this chapter. The driver shall identify on the form, by name and current residence address, if available, any person involved in the accident complaining of bodily injury.”
  3. California Insurance Code 16056(a).
  4. See, e.g., Insurance Code 1861.025(c): “During the period commencing on January 1, 1999, or the date 10 years prior to the date of application for the issuance or renewal of the Good Driver Discount policy, whichever is later, and ending on the date of the application for the issuance or renewal of the Good Driver Discount policy, he or she has not been convicted of a violation of Section 23140, 23152, or 23153 of the Vehicle Code, a felony violation of Section 23550 or 23566, or former Section 23175 or, as those sections read on January 1, 1999, of the Vehicle Code, or a violation of Section 191.5 [gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated] or subdivision (a) of Section 192.5 of the Penal Code.”
  5. Same * Insurance Code 1861.025(c).
  6. California Vehicle Codes 16000 – 16078 are known as the Compulsory Financial Responsibility Act. The Act requires every California driver to carry auto insurance.
  7. It will still count as a conviction for certain purposes, such as applying for certain professional licenses or to become a California law enforcement officer. Depending on the circumstances, it may also count for purposes of determining immigration consequences. For more information, please see our article, “The Immigration Consequences of a California DUI Conviction.”
  8. As set forth in Vehicle Code sections 23140 [underage DUI], 23152 [DUI], or 23153 [DUI causing injury].
  9. Vehicle Code 1808(b)(1).
  10. Vehicle Code 1808(b)(2).
  11. Santa Barbara DUI defense attorney John Murray is a leading expert in California DUI law. He has extensive experience both in the Los Angeles Superior Court and Ventura County Superior Court systems and in California DMV hearings.
  12. California Vehicle Code 23103.5 VC.
  13. California Vehicle Code 23103 VC.
  14. California Vehicle Code 23109(c) VC.
  15. Vehicle Code 1808(b) VC.

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