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Car Insurers Eye Driving Skills To Set Prices

Aug 6, 2012
Originally published on August 7, 2012 2:37 pm

To the average consumer, car insurance can seem pretty arbitrary. What you get charged often depends more on where you drive than how you drive.

John Egan of InsuranceQuotes.com says it's very often about location, location, location. Two people, he says, can live in two different zip codes in the same city "and pay a substantially different amount of money, depending on exactly where [they] live in your community."

How much a driver pays also varies widely from state to state. State laws about personal injury and liability go into the mix, along with a whole host of other factors.

Massachusetts drivers pay the lowest premiums, Egan says, while Michigan drivers pay the most.

"In the Detroit area in particular, there are a lot of uninsured drivers," Egan says. "And when you've got more uninsured drivers, that tends to drive up the cost for everybody who does have car insurance."

A Whole New Pricing Model

But while those pricing swings from zip code to zip code are well-entrenched, there's also a big change under way in the car insurance business, as advances in technology transform how the industry functions.

"There's always been a lot of competition for auto insurance," says Bob Passmore, a senior director with the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America and a 30-year industry veteran. "But I think the way that insurers do business, and the way that they advertise their business, has changed."

One result — car advertising has proliferated on television.

But there are other shifts under way, as well. The recent recession, says Passmore, means there are fewer new cars to insure.

At the same time, the Internet is making it easier for consumers to find the lowest price — just as insurers are streamlining their practices with new high-tech tools.

"For the first time ever, we can now go in as an industry and observe individual driving behavior," says Richard Hutchinson, a general manager with Progressive Insurance.

"Historically, the industry has priced based on modeling, which is more arbitrary than an individualized quote based on one's actual activity," Hutchinson says.

But today, Progressive can put a device in your car that determines how well you drive — tracking if a driver frequently slams on the breaks, for example.

With that data, the company can then determine how much that driver should pay for insurance. Other companies are now following suit.

Better Rates, But At A Price

These kinds of advances are the cutting edge of the business, and companies are even moving from devices that track not just how you drive, but also tell you when you're doing something reckless or dangerous.

Dave Ferrick of Agero, a company that makes these types of in-car devices, says all technologies have trade-offs.

"The analogy I give is when we were all kids," Ferrick says. "If your mother said to you, 'You're going to go out right now [and] I'm going to put this thing in your hand, which [means] at any second I can call you, and you have to pick up the phone,' I would say, 'I don't want it.' "

Just like the cellphone took away some freedoms, Ferrick says, drivers will lose some freedom as technology advances.

"I can save you some pretty serious dollars on your premium," he says. "Are you willing to sacrifice, knowing that somebody is not watching where you drive, necessarily, but how that car is being driven?"

Thus far, only a small fraction of drivers have installed the tracking devices in their cars. For its part, the industry says tracking is the way of the future — and giving up freedom is the only way to save money.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. auto industry continues its comeback. And as the car business gets more competitive, so too does the car insurance business. That includes one big shift that could save some drivers a lot of money.

NPR's Sonari Glinton reports on a new technology that would put insurers right there in the car with you.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Car insurance can seem kind of arbitrary. What you get charged often depends more on where you drive than how you drive. John Egan is with InsuranceQuotes.com. He says it's often about location, location, location.

JOHN EGAN: You can live in one zip code within a city and another within the same city and pay, you know, a substantially different amount of money depending on exactly where you live in your community.

GLINTON: How much you pay also varies widely from state to state. State laws about personal injury and liability go into the mix, as well as other factors. Egan says Massachusetts drivers pay the lowest premiums and Michigan drivers pay the most.

EGAN: And in the Detroit area in particular, there are a lot of uninsured drivers. And when you've got more uninsured drivers that tends to drive up the costs for everybody who does have car insurance.

GLINTON: But here's the thing: While those swings from zip code to zip code are happening, there's this crazy change in the business and you see it happening while you're watching television.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Steve O'Dell is a real Geico customer, not a paid celebrity. So to help tell his story, we hired a celebrity.

STEVE O'DELL: Recently, my father was carjacked at knife point.

JOAN RIVERS: Honey, that's all right. This face has seen more knives than Benihana.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm your blind spot and my job is easy: Hide big things.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CRASH)

BOB PASSMORE: Well, when I started you really saw ads on television for insurance companies.

GLINTON: Bob Passmore has been in the insurance industry for almost 30 years. He's with the Property Casualty Insurance Association of America, an industry group.

PASSMORE: There's always been a lot of competition for auto insurance. But I think the way that insurers do business, and the way that they advertise their business, has changed.

GLINTON: Passmore says the recent recession means there are fewer new cars to insure. The Internet is making it easier for consumers to find the lowest price and that's forced greater competition that started on TV, and is moving into technology.

RICHARD HUTCHINSON: For the first time ever, we can now go in as an industry and observe individual driving behavior.

GLINTON: Richard Hutchinson is with Progressive Insurance.

HUTCHINSON: Historically, the industry has priced based on modeling, which is more arbitrary than an individualized quote based on one's actual activity.

GLINTON: Progressive will put a device in your car that determines how well you drive - do you slam on the breaks a lot. And from there, it determines how much you pay for insurance. Other companies are now following suit. And this is the cutting edge of the business. And we're moving from devices that just tracks how you drive, but tell you when you're doing something stupid.

Dave Ferrick is with Agero, a company that makes those machines that go into car. And he says of these technologies, they have their trade-offs.

DAVE FERRICK: The analogy I give is when we were all kids. If your mother said to you, you're going to go out right now and I'm going to put this thing in your hand, which meant at any second I can call you and you have to pick up the phone. I would say I don't want it.

GLINTON: Ferrick says just like the cell phone took away some freedom, drivers will lose some freedom.

FERRICK: I can save you some pretty serious dollars on your premium. And are you willing to sacrifice, you know, knowing that somebody is not watching where you drive, necessarily, but how that car is being driven?

GLINTON: Only a small fraction of drivers have installed the tracking devices in their cars so far. The industry says this is the wave of the future. And giving up freedom is the only way to save money.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.