- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

Drivers in Minnesota soon will be able to knock as much as 25 percent off their automobile insurance bills — if they give Big Brother a lift.

Progressive Corp., the nation’s third-largest auto insurance group, will begin a voluntary pilot program in Minnesota next week that tracks the speed of participants as well as how often they drive and the length of their trips.

The Ohio company will invite 5,000 drivers to participate. It will provide each volunteer with an electronic device about the size of a box of mints that can be installed in a port near the steering column to gather the information.

“This is an outgrowth of our efforts to use technology in innovative ways,” said Dave Huber, manager of the program, which Progressive has dubbed “TripSense.”

The company automatically will give volunteers in the program a 5 percent discount. The drivers will get an additional 20 percent discount depending on how much, how fast and when they drive.

People who drive between midnight and 4 a.m. every day are at the highest risk for an accident, Progressive says, so they probably would not be eligible for a big discount.

The participating drivers can use software provided by Progressive to review the data the device has collected, and can send the information to the company to determine whether a discount applies.

Progressivesays it will not raise rates on drivers if the data show they are at risk.

“This is a discount-only program,” Mr. Huber said.

The company hopes the program will encourage participants to think more about their driving habits.

“Perhaps someone will review their information and say, ‘Wow, I spend a lot of time above 75 miles per hour’ or ‘Why do I need to go out at 2 a.m. on Friday night?’” Mr. Huber said.

Privacy activists are concerned about the Progressive program, but Mr. Huber said the company will not share any of the data it collects.

The director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a small consumer advocacy group in San Diego that is funded primarily through foundation grants, fears the information Progressive collects could be used for “secondary purposes.”

It is conceivable that information about a person’s driving habits could be used against them in a legal case, said Beth Givens, the director.

The group also is concerned that low-income drivers will sacrifice their privacy rights and sign up for the program just to qualify for the discount.

“If you’re a low-income person and you can save yourself 25 percent on your auto insurance bill, you will probably be motivated to take advantage of this,” Ms. Givens said.

Progressive announced its TripSense program Monday, six days after the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the federal government require all new passenger vehicles to be equipped with boxes that record speed, seat-belt use, braking and other factors.

About 25 million cars already contain the boxes, and 80 percent to 90 percent of 2004 models will feature them, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says.

Most newer-model General Motors and Ford cars have the boxes, said Rae Tyson, an administration spokesman. He was unable to name other manufacturers that include the boxes in their vehicles.

The boxes cannot be disabled because they are part of a car’s computer system, Mr. Tyson said. They record only a few seconds of information before an accident occurs, he said.

“They don’t have the capability of finding out if you were speeding two weeks ago. It’s a very brief snapshot,” Mr. Tyson said.

AAA, the nation’s largest advocacy group for motorists, supports the use of boxes, but only if the car’s owner is able to control the information collected, said Lon Anderson, its spokesman in the Mid-Atlantic region.

“That data, just like the box itself, is private property,” Mr. Anderson said.

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