The year started out strong for our personal auto business with new applications up about 9% for the first two and a half months. This year-over-year (YOY) growth was driven by an increase in people shopping for auto insurance with Progressive, which was evidenced by a 9% increase in quotes during what we are defining as the pre-COVID-19 period. Results by channel varied with Direct growing both quotes and new applications significantly faster than Agency, due in part to ongoing increases in Direct advertising. In fact, January and February were the highest two months in our history for Direct auto average weekly quotes and sales. But that is in our rearview mirror since we entered this unprecedented pandemic.
During March, as the virus and its impact spread, people’s focus shifted to concerns of health and safety, economic well-being, and having access to required supplies during the rapidly expanding shelter-in-place orders and, as a result, auto insurance shopping appeared to take a significant turn for the worse. We monitor ‘ambient’ insurance shopping through Direct business volume and have seen YOY declines of 20% via this channel and some of the lowest quote volumes we’ve seen since 2015. During the last three weeks of the first quarter, the post-COVID-19 period, total auto new business applications were down 23%, driven by more than a 20% decline in quotes and about a 6% decline in sales conversion.
Both distribution channels experienced strong declines in sales during the post-COVID-19 period. Operations at many independent insurance agencies were disrupted as they closed offices and transitioned staff to work from home. Because of this, our Agency channel new application growth was down close to 30%, with deeper declines than Direct in both quotes and sales conversion across most consumer segments. In the Direct channel, new applications were down 20%, driven by 18% fewer quotes and 4% lower conversion than the same period last year. Despite negative new business growth, we ended the quarter with personal auto policies in force 10% greater than March 2019, in large part due to a consistent year-over-year growth in renewal applications.
From an auto profitability perspective, the first quarter was strong as solid profitability during January and February continued into pre-COVID March. As the COVID-19 restrictions started being enacted and people began to drive less, we saw significant declines in personal auto accidents. Using the data from our Snapshot® usage-based insurance program, which is consistent with other published information, we have seen vehicle miles driven in the post-COVID-19 period down by roughly a third from pre-COVID levels, with regional variance as states implemented shelter-in-place orders.
Similar to personal auto, our special lines (motorcycle, boat, RV) business started off the year with mid-teen percentage increases in YOY new business applications, driven by equal increases in quotes and conversion. Our special lines business is highly seasonal with March typically marking the start to the season. However, since the COVID-19 restrictions were put in place mid-March, new business volume dropped precipitously. We saw quotes fall more than 30% and new application growth was down 26%. Unlike personal auto, however, special lines sales conversion held fairly steady during the second half of March, likely the result of more engaged, albeit fewer, customers needing coverage for recently purchased vehicles. Uncertainty remains around the depth and breadth of the economic implications of the COVID-19 crisis, but based on increasing unemployment and general economic slowdown, we anticipate that sales growth in these discretionary products will fall below our initial expectations for the year.