The declining number of auto accidents, safer cars, new auto theft technology and fraud-fighting efforts are offset by higher medical claims, repair costs and jury awards.The cost of auto insurance is expected to rise by just 1.5 percent in 2005, the smallest increase in five years, the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) reported this week.The average cost for auto insurance nationwide for 2005 is estimated at $870 -- an increase of $13 per vehicle from last year, according to the I.I.I. The projected increase represents a continued slowdown from 2004 when auto insurance costs rose by just 2.8 percent. The price of auto insurance is increasing by little more than one-half the rate of inflation, according to the I.I.I.Why? Robert Hartwig, senior vice president and chief economist of the I.I.I., cited the declining number of auto accidents, safer cars, new auto theft technology and fraud-fighting efforts as key factors behind the trend. However, he observed that rising costs for medical care and vehicle repairs and higher jury awards remain a problem, according to the I.I.I. analysis.This year insurers will pay between $15 and $20 billion in medical claims, the I.I.I. reported. Higher costs for hospitalization and pharmaceuticals, and state regulations that permit abuse of medical treatments and associated legal costs are also to blame. "Collectively, these high costs more than offset the decline in accident frequency, pushing overall rates upward," Hartwig said.Higher repair costs, reflecting insurers’ reduced use of generic crash parts, are another significant cost driver today - rising at nearly double the overall rate of inflation.Higher jury awards in vehicular liability cases continue to put additional upward pressure on auto insurance rates. Auto theft is another significant factor that affects rates. According to preliminary data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Report, the number of auto thefts rose by 1.1 percent from 2002 to 2003, the fourth consecutive annual increase.This comes on the heels of a 1.5 percent increase in auto thefts in 2002, 5.9 percent in 2001 and 0.7 percent in 2000. An estimated 1.26 million auto thefts were reported in 2003. The nation's highest theft rates were found in the West and South, with the lowest rates occurring in the Midwest and Northeast. The largest increases in auto theft were reported in medium-size cities and suburban areas.New vehicle security devices, such as electronic tracking systems can help police to find stolen vehicles and keep premiums down. Some insurers offer car owners these tracking systems at a discounted price with premium discounts.Fraud and abuse remain major problems in some states, such as New York, Florida and Massachusetts. However, crackdowns by law enforcement agencies and insurers are starting to yield results.