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Device lets insurer track miles, speed, braking behaviors

Last Updated: December 22. 2010 9:57AM Brian J. O’Connor / Detroit News Finance Editor

It sounds like Big Brother, but a high-tech gizmo that tracks your driving could bring you a big discount on car insurance.

Progressive Insurance is unveiling its Snapshot discount program in Michigan this week. the program involves installing a monitoring device on your vehicle that records how much you drive, how fast and when — and how hard — you hit the brakes. Depending on how those factors add up, drivers can get up to a 30 percent discount.

The program already saves Tiana Kennedy more than 15 percent on coverage for her silver BMW. the 35-year-old Easter Seals clinician does lots of driving for her job.

“When I got the insurance I opted for any discount I could get,” says Kennedy of Farmington Hills. “So when they offered this, I said, ‘No problem.'”A device about the size of a garage-door opener plugs into an existing computer diagnostic port in the car, explains Heather Day, a spokeswoman for Progressive, which is based in Mayfield Village, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb.

“We can calculate when someone is driving, what kind of mileage they’re putting on the car, and what their driving behavior is related to braking,” Day says. One thing the device doesn’t do is pinpoint where you’re driving or the conditions around you, such as weather or speed limits, since it doesn’t have a global positioning system, she added.

“We don’t use it to actually calculate speed, and the device doesn’t have GPS, so we don’t have any idea how fast they’re going relative to the speed limit,” Day says.

An earlier version of the program, already rolled out in 27 states, has more than 100,000 customers signed up, Progressive says.

The company sends the device to drivers, who plug it in and get an initial discount after 30 days of monitoring. a final discount is set after six months, when the policy comes up for renewal.

Progressive’s Snapshot is an extension of similar programs from other insurers that seek to align insurance rates with customers’ driving skills and habits, explains John Egan, managing editor of InsuranceQuotes.com.

“A lot of auto insurance companies are engaging in what’s called ‘pay as you drive,’ and this is an offshoot,” Egan says. “It adds a new wrinkle that might be called, ‘pay how you drive.'”Both GMAC and State Farm have offered programs that calculated insurance rates based on the mileage recorded through OnStar GPS devices on General Motors co. vehicles, Egan said.

For the insurer, the benefit is attracting careful drivers. “Lower-risk drivers are going to mean a lower number of claims,” Egan says.

As for worries that Big Brother could become a back-seat driver, Progressive representatives point out that the program is strictly voluntary. But it comes down to how each driver feels about the concept.

“My mom and my sisters didn’t want to try it even though my mom doesn’t go anywhere but five blocks to work and five blocks back home,” says Kennedy. “I drive carefully anyway and I have to drive for a living so it really didn’t bother me.”

boconnor@detnews.com

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