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Spying on truckers' every move

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CarInsurance.com

Big rig truckerIf you're thinking of becoming a long-haul trucker so you can enjoy the freedom of the open road, a word of warning: These days, truck drivers are under as much supervision as your average cubicle dweller.

For years now, increasingly sophisticated technology on 18-wheelers has been used to record or transmit information back to the company's fleet managers. Here's a sampling of what is available from a multitude of reporting and recording devices:

  • The vehicle's real-time location
  • Any deviation from planned route
  • Driver seatbelt use
  • Driver cell-phone use
  • Miles per gallon
  • Current vehicle speed
  • Speed violations where driver exceeded company guidelines
  • Cornering speeds
  • Hard braking events
  • Where the vehicle has stopped and for how long
  • In-cab video
  • Time spent idling
  • Hours in service

It's all done in the name of saving lives and saving money. And similar technology -- loosely known as telematics -- might soon be arriving in your own car, if it hasn't already.

But the companies that insure private passenger cars are treading a lot more carefully.

Safety is money

It's easy to see why a trucking company would invest in a telematics system. A driver who flouts the speed limit and slams on the brakes is more likely to get into accidents. Transportation companies will happily pay for fancy electronics if it means early detection of behavior that could lead to a costly wreck.

Corey Catten, the chief technology officer for telematics company inthinc, estimates that the majority of vehicles used in commercial shipping and transportation now use some form of telematics.

"You are building a driving profile for these drivers," he says. "We've developed a driving performance score, and this is very analogous to what an actuary will do. … We have scores for speeding, for driving style and for compliance with seat belt laws."

For large companies, which tend to be at least partially self-insured, any reduction in accidents means big savings. And while that's less true for a fully-insured private driver, installing a small telematics device in your car's diagnostics port can still save you.

After all, speeding tickets and self-reported mileage estimates can only tell an insurer so much about how risky you are to insure. The more you're able to assure your insurance company that you're a low-risk driver, the more they should be willing to give you a break on your premiums.

A cautious rollout for passenger cars

Telematics systems offer a means of showing your insurer just how safe you can be.

That's the theory, anyway. In practice, the systems offered by most major insurance companies tend to fall short of the sort of comprehensive data-gathering that fleet-management software offers.

Take Progressive Insurance's Snapshot, arguably the most high-profile telematics device offered to consumers: It tracks your total driving distance, how hard you hit the brakes and what time of day you tend to drive. But a company spokesperson emphasizes that it does not track where you drive or whether you obey the speed limit.

Others, like the GMAC Low-Mileage Discount and Intellidrive, offered by Travelers, are limited to distance tracking.

Of the major insurers, Allstate has the most complete driver performance tracking, with its Drive Wise system detecting mileage, time of day, hard braking, fast acceleration and speed. For now, though, it's only available in Illinois, Ohio and Arizona.

So why has only Allstate dared to track the full range of driving behavior? Niranjan Manohar, an analyst for Frost & Sullivan who has examined the North American market for telematics-based insurance, suggests that insurers are reluctant to introduce programs that customers may perceive as an invasion of privacy.

"You see privacy concerns among a lot of consumers," he says. "Realistically speaking, they're not happy about you tracking how they're driving."

Careful drivers should take a chance

Catten says that even commercial drivers sometimes bristle at the perceived invasion of privacy when the devices are introduced, though he notes that it's never prevented a rollout.

Of course, that's largely because commercial drivers have little choice in the matter. By contrast, consumers can choose not to use the devices, and thus far uptake has been relatively slow.

When assessing the market for consumer telematics three years ago, Manohar took a dim view of the sector's growth, projecting that just 1.1 million cars would be equipped by 2017. He notes, however, that more players have entered the space since then, and Progressive alone now reports nearly a million drivers use Snapshot. (The company now allows drivers to test-drive the program without switching companies first.)

So should you become one of the early adopters?

CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner says that drivers "who call themselves defensive drivers, and really are" should by all means give it a try, especially those who don't put too many miles on the odometer. The savings are certainly there for the taking: Progressive says Snapshot users save an average of $150 a year, while Travelers says you can score discounts of up to 20 percent if it finds that you're just not driving that often.

And there are non-monetary benefits as well: An ongoing critique of your driving is likely to change it for the better.

Allstate says that drivers testing Drive Wise improved significantly in their driving habits as time went on. That means that having Big Brother backseat driving doesn't just lower your premiums -- it also makes you drive safer, just like a trucker.

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