It was inevitable that insurance agencies would figure out how to tap into the data buzzing around a car's CAN bus and start collecting it to monitor driving. Progressive Insurance's new program certainly allows for collecting some valuable driver demographics. But there's also the Big Brotherish effect of having your insurance company as your backseat driver, monitoring every acceleration!

In Progressive's TripSense program, policy holders volunteer to have their driving electronically monitored in exchange for a usage-based discount. Participants get a free TripSensor, a "black box" device that plugs into the car's On-Board Diagnostic (OBDII) port. Participants also load TripSense software onto their PC, which communicates with the TripSensor when it's pulled from the OBDII port and plugged into the PC's USB port.

The TripSensor culls data from the OBDII to compile individual trip statistics: start and end time, miles driven, number of "aggressive braking and acceleration" events, and speeds taken at 10-second intervals to build records of time spent in various "speed bands."

Designed by Davis Instruments, the TripSensor is a customized version of Davis' CarChip, a "black box" data logger about the size of two 9-V batteries. (CarChip E/X has many other functions, like monitoring engine trouble codes and performance parameters. As a "black box," it also can generate an accident log showing speed and braking data for the last 20 seconds prior to a collision.)

Participants in the TripSense program initially receive a 5% discount for signing up. In subsequent policy periods, they receive the discount only if they choose to upload driving data to Progressive. Then they may get additional discounts of up to 20% based on how much, how fast, and when they drive. Drivers are rewarded for driving fewer miles, keeping speed below 75 mph, and staying off the roads at higher-risk times of day. The TripSensor must be installed 95% of the time to qualify for the discount.

Once drivers have downloaded driving data, they can use the TripSense software on their PCs to calculate potential discounts. They can also go online and generate reports and compare their driving to other participants. Then, they can decide if they want to forward their data to Progressive.

I can certainly see advantages, and I am curious to know my relative level of aggression compared to other drivers. As a parent of soon-to-be-driving teenagers, I especially can see the pros of a monitoring device. During my own teenage days, "aggressive acceleration" wasn't always correlated with appropriate on-ramp situations! (Progressive defines an aggressive acceleration/braking event as one in which the vehicle speeds or slows down more than 7 mph in one second. Currently, these events aren't part of the discount calculation. Progressive is analyzing this data to see how it is predictive of future accidents.)

But are these discounts worth having your insurance company watching your every move? The Big Brother factor is ameliorated by the fact that the program is voluntary and that the upload of data is optional after review on the PC. Also, that "over the shoulder" feeling is touted as one of the program's advantages. Knowing that the data is being recorded will encourage safe driving, preventing accidents and rewarding cautious drivers.

From a privacy standpoint, the TripSense concept is less obtrusive than Progressive's previous foray into driver monitoring. That program, conducted in Texas from 1998 to 2001, used GPS and cellular technology to track when and where a vehicle was driven. Talk about a teen's nightmare!

However, I do have some worries about the "slippery slope" factor. Progressive says that it will not use the data to increase rates or to cancel a policy. But if the program succeeds and grows, those not wishing to have their driving habits tracked will end up paying a higher share of premiums.

And what about the issue of driver data being used to settle claims issues? Progressive says it will only use the TripSensor data for those purposes with their customers' consent. But the company's TripSense FAQs note that TripSense data can be subpoenaed, and if so, the company "would be required to comply." In that case, your personal driving data could become public record very quickly!

Still, "over-averaged" insurance costs are a sore point for me, having moved to New Jersey 18 months ago. I've been stunned by the outrageous costs of auto insurance here and the difficulty in finding carriers eager to write new policies. The over-regulation of the insurance industry here, with "take all applicants" laws and territorial rate caps, drove many top carriers out of the state. These regulations limit insurance companies' ability to price policies according to risk and mean that low-risk areas subsidize high-risk ones. (How else to explain why my insurance costs would double when moving from a high auto-theft area like downtown Seattle to an extremely low-crime suburban area in New Jersey?)

As a resident of such an insurance-challenged state, the question of whether to participate in Progressive's program is likely to remain a theoretical one for me. Thus I can continue to sit on the fence, balancing the need for fair insurance pricing with the desire to keep my driving habits to myself!

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