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Save your insurance: Aim for the squirrel

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CarInsurance.com

Swerving to miss a squirrel or other small animal is dangerous.Your car insurance rates can seem like something beyond your control.

Sure, you decide what kind of car you drive. But you can't change your age, and you probably aren't thinking about your car insurance as you run your credit cards ragged or speed across town for a date.

And some factors are downright counterintuitive. You may have to fight your impulses to do the thing that ultimately saves you money. Here are three examples.

Swerving to avoid an animal

A raccoon or squirrel jumping in front of your car probably startles you into swerving around it. Nice thought, of course, but you're more likely to injure yourself when your car winds up in a ditch, sideswipes a tree or hits another car.

The advice from road-safety experts: Don't swerve unless you've got time to scout the escape route.

If you miss the small animal and your car is damaged in the process, the car insurance claim goes from a comprehensive claim (animal collision) to a collision claim (collision with another object), says Mike Coleman, a State Farm agent in Alabama. Collision claims cause your rates to rise; comprehensive claims don't, unless you file a lot of them.

The moral of the story: Hit the animal, unless it's big enough to total your car, such as a cow. (See "I hit a deer. Am I covered?")

Filing claims because you can

Because small cracks can lead to larger ones, a damaged windshield should be fixed.

A properly installed windshield does more than keep the rain off your face; it's an integral part of the structure of the car, safety experts say. It keeps the roof from collapsing in a rollover and ensures air bags deploy properly in a collision. Dings and cracks impair vision as well.

Insurance companies know these things and handle windshield claims differently.

If the damage is from rocks or other unpreventable road hazards, it's considered no-fault damage under your comprehensive coverage and shouldn't affect your car insurance rates, according to the Insurance Information Institute. In fact, in many states you'll pay no deductible. In others, you can buy glass coverage that has no deductible.

But multiple claims for rocks cracking the windshield will lead to higher rates, says Lynette Simmons Hoag, an insurance claims attorney in Chicago.

The moral of the story: Don't worry about the first cracked-windshield claim, says CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner. But call the company before you make a second. (See "Will insurance pay for your cracked windshield?")

Pretending your kid isn't driving your car

You can't hide a teenager, especially one who lives with you and has a driver's license. Yet it's tempting: Nothing short of a five-car pileup affects your rates like a 16-year-old. Why would you tell your insurer about this huge new risk?

Consider the worst-case scenario: Junior wrecks the family car, and you're not covered because you've misrepresented your household's risk. That would include not just the repair of your car but the cost to fix the car of anyone he or she hit.

Only slightly better: The insurance company pays the bill -- if you pony up all the premium dollars you should have forked over in the first place. Probably you can forget about a retroactive good-student discount.

"You cannot hide from insurance companies," says Ron Alford, a consumer advocate and insurance industry expert.

If you truly cannot afford to insure your teenager, Gusner says, you can buy him or her a bus pass and exclude your young driver specifically from your insurance coverage. (See "Do I have to tell my insurance company about my teen if he barely drives?")

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