5:33 PM EDT, October 26, 2012
Like in Lake Wobegon, the fictional place where all the children are above average, most people think they're above-average drivers.
Of course, everybody cannot be. But today you can prove whether you are and save money in the process.
Those who are truly safe drivers — and especially those who drive very few miles — might consider new voluntary auto insurance programs that give discounts based on electronic monitoring of driving habits.
Devices attached to your vehicle can measure how many miles you drive, when you drive, how fast you go and how hard you accelerate, brake and corner. They are called " telematic" devices, and the programs are generically termed "usage-based" or "pay-as-you-drive" insurance.
The idea is that cautious drivers who travel fewer miles should pay lower insurance premiums because they're less likely to be in an auto accident.
However, the big downside is relinquishing privacy — allowing your insurance company to compile all that information about your driving habits.
Should you ask your auto insurance agent about installing a telematic device to get discounted premiums? Here are questions and answers to help you decide.
What is it? Typically, the insurer will mail you a small telematic device, which you install by plugging it into your car's onboard diagnostic port (the OBD-II port), which in most cars is under the dashboard, near the steering column. Devices are generally compatible with vehicles built in the mid-1990s and later.
People might think using a telematic device is difficult, but the one from Progressive, for example, fits in the palm of your hand and is easily installed, said Richard Hutchinson, usage-based insurance business leader at Progressive. "It's easier than people think it is," he said. "It's a chance to make insurance more personal."
Devices and programs differ, but a typical telematic automatically transmits your driving data wirelessly, via wireless phone networks, to your insurer. Some insurers allow customers to view their own data on a website.
Driving data is added to the formula an insurer uses to calculate your insurance premium, along with traditional measures, such as age, gender, vehicle type and where you live.
Programs go by different names. Progressive has Snapshot, State Farm has Drive Safe & Save with In-Drive and Allstate has Drive Wise, for example.
State Farm's program, available in 14 states and not yet aggressively marketed, can be used through General Motors' OnStar and Ford's Sync information services. Both record only mileage and not driving habits. Or you could join the insurer's own Drive Safe & Save with In-Drive program for about $5 to $15 per month, which requires a separate telematic device that not only provides services — such as roadside assistance and one-touch emergency response — but can also measure such driving habits as speed, acceleration, braking and cornering.
What are the advantages? A discount on your auto insurance premium.
It makes sense that if your actual driving habits are lower risk, you should pay less — otherwise you're essentially subsidizing high-risk drivers.
Of course, most people think they are low risk. A poll by Progressive, which has the most mature telematics program in the U.S. and is available in 42 states, showed 84 percent of drivers define their driving habits as "cautious" or "defensive."
How big is the discount? Progressive says 70 percent of more than 1 million drivers who signed up for its Snapshot program end up paying less for their insurance, saving about $150 per year. "It's been amazingly popular," Hutchinson said. "We're seeing a quarter or more of people signing up for it."
The largest U.S. auto insurer, State Farm, claims usage-based discounts of up to 50 percent off your auto insurance. However, a more typical discount is 10 percent, State Farm spokesman Dick Luedke said.
Allstate's Drive Wise, only available in seven states so far, claims customers could reap discounts of "up to 30 percent." Customers get 10 percent off their first policy period just for signing up.
The good news is that if the telematic device determines you're a lousy driver, your rates probably won't go up. Information is generally used only to lower rates through discounts.
A side benefit: If the device helps you drive slower and eliminate rapid acceleration and braking, you'll also save money by improving your gas mileage and spending less at the pump.
What are the disadvantages? Privacy; the Big Brother nature of the devices can be disconcerting.
"The first thing you want to look at is precisely what information the telematic device is capturing about the driver," said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "The worst-case scenario is GPS (Global Positioning System capability) for location tracking."
That's a misconception consumers have about telematics — that they're being tracked geographically, Progressive's Hutchinson said. "That's the biggest sensitivity people have with telematics," he said. "We purposely didn't add GPS so we don't track that."
State Farm, however, is an example of an insurer that can retrieve location information because its safe-driving program is part of a larger information service, similar to OnStar, that uses GPS. A spokesman said geographical data is not monitored and is not used in calculating safe-driving discounts.
GPS isn't the only concern, however.
"If you go beyond just aggregate mileage, which perhaps is not very troubling, these devices are not only recording your driving behavior but also your social behavior," Stephens said. For example, an insurer could notice you use the car at 11 p.m. and again when bars close. It might hint that you regularly go out drinking at night, he said. "Do you really want your insurance company to know what you're doing with your life?"
Several insurers cite driving after 11 p.m. or midnight as a risky behavior that can affect safe-driving discounts.
Another issue is that collected data potentially becomes available for court proceedings. Stephens said it's easy to imagine a scenario in which driving data is sought in a divorce case, especially if one wants evidence that the other is cheating.
"But the real thing we're concerned with as privacy advocates is the slippery slope," Stephens said. "As we see with using the Internet and using a cellphone, companies are constantly incorporating new mechanisms to do additional data collections that are far more invasive than initially contemplated by the technology."
And no matter how safe a driver you are, miles matter. For example, Allstate's Drive Wise discount will not apply if you drive more than 18,000 miles per year, according to the company. Driving fewer than 12,000 miles can lead to the largest savings.
"Everybody has their own threshold for what is right for them in terms of sacrificing their privacy versus saving money," Stephens said. "If you're the sort of individual who doesn't care at all about that sort of thing, sure, go ahead and get the discount. On the other hand, if you're someone who places value on keeping the things you do in your life private, you might want to give a second thought to selling your data to an insurance company for a discount."