The main difference between collision and comprehensive coverage comes down to the question of what the driver controls. Collision insurance will cover events within a motorist's control or when another vehicle collides with your car. Comprehensive coverage generally falls under "acts of God or nature," or things that are typically out of your control when driving. These can include events such as a spooked deer, a heavy hailstorm, or a carjacking.
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Insurers don't determine your actual cash value (ACV) settlement based on what you owe, but rather on what the car is worth just prior to the accident. Let's say you owe $20,000 on your new car, but it's only worth about $16,000. If your car is totaled, you might get a settlement check of $16,000 but still owe an additional $4,000 on your loan or lease.
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There is a case to be made for getting just comprehensive and not collision insurance, even if your car is not valuable. Comprehensive covers you for a lot more perils than does collision--including, most importantly, against theft. Regardless of the value of your car, having it stolen is a major inconvenience. Even if your car is worth only $2,000 at the time of the theft, and your insurer gives you $1,500, that sum would go a long way in buying yourself a new vehicle. As we discuss in more detail below, comprehensive insurance generally costs no more than $200 per year, so a $1,500 reimbursement would make the coverage valuable.
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Let's use the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy as an example to illustrate the differences between collision and comprehensive. Within that storm, let's consider two events that might have happened: 1) a heavy tree branch fell on your car, or 2) you swerved to avoid a falling tree branch and wound up crashing into a tree. In the first event, you had no control over when or why a tree branch would fall on your car. This kind of accident would get reimbursed under your comprehensive policy. In the second situation, you were driving the car and ultimately swerved into the tree, which makes it a collision, and collision insurance therefore pays for the damages. Events like the hypothetical ones stated above are why it's important to differentiate between the two types of coverage.