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Do drivers automatically get an insurance discount for putting on winter tires? – Jeff, Oshawa

Less than half of Ontario insurers provide a discount for winter tires. That's set to change in January, but it's up to your insurance company to decide how much you'll save, says Ontario's insurance regulator.

"The regulation does not specify the amount of the discount to be offered to encourage competition among insurers," Financial Services Commission of Ontario (FSCO) spokesman Malon Edwards said in an e-mail statement. "FSCO does not set insurance rates, and we do not set the discount for winter tires."

Queen's Park announced last week that, starting Jan. 1, all insurance companies will have to give a winter tire discount.

You'll only get it if you're renewing your policy or starting a new one after that date. And, even then, you'll likely have to ask for it. And, if you're renewing your policy before the new year?

"Consumers renewing their policy before Jan. 1, 2016 and who install winter tires, should shop around for the best possible rates and the coverage that fits their needs," Edwards says. "Drivers whose policy renewal is on or after Jan. 1, 2016 should call their insurer to inquire about a possible mid-term discount on their auto insurance premiums."

There's a chance your insurer might already offer a winter discount. Or that you can find one who will. About 45 per cent of companies offer them now, Edwards says.

"The standard [winter tire discount] in the insurance industry prior to it being mandated was 5 per cent," says Anne Marie Thomas with Insurance Hotline, a rate comparison site. "It's worth asking about because if you already put on winter tires, you're getting a discount for something you're already doing."

Thomas says the discounts companies are giving now usually apply for the full year. Companies usually require four winter tires. They typically have to be on your vehicle between November and April. If you're paying Ontario's average rate of $1,455 – the highest in the country – then a 5 per cent discount for installing winter tires would be about $72.

Ontario is the only province requiring insurance companies to give a discount, the Insurance Bureau of Canada says.

"It's important that they made that discount announcement the day before they revealed that rates haven't declined very much," says Maia Bent, president of the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association (OTLA). "We certainly support the use of winter tires, but we are not optimistic this will put any more than a small amount of money in the hands of consumers."

Last week, the FSCO released a report of the rate changes granted to 40 insurers in the third quarter of 2015. Rates decreased by 0.5 per cent on average.

In 2014, Ontario promised to cut average rates, industry-wide, by 15 per cent by August, 2015.

"Rates approved by FSCO have decreased by approximately 6.96 per cent on average since August, 2013," Edwards says.

But even that rate decrease doesn't mean most insurance customers have had their rates go down significantly – or at all.

"I have not heard of anyone who has seen a significant rate reduction – $20 a year to my mind is not significant," Thomas says. "Companies have shareholders to satisfy – they have to be shown to be making money."

In 2010, Ontario reduced benefits paid out to people injured in accidents – and it saved insurance companies $2-billion, Bent says.

"The government was hoping the money insurance companies saved would be passed on to consumers," Bent says. "That didn't happen."

Last week, the OTLA released its own report by two York University professors showing that Ontario insurance companies made big profits – as much as an 18.5 per cent return on equity. "Who in this economic climate is making 18.5 per cent?" Bent says. "So clearly there is room to restore benefits to accident victims and bring down premiums."

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