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Drivers alter their behavior when their insurer is watching

By Autumn Cafiero Giusti

When drivers know they’re being monitored, they’re twice as likely to act differently behind the wheel. That’s according to a recent public opinion survey by the Insurance Research Council. The survey found that more than half (56%) of drivers participating in the report having made changes to the way they drive since equipping their primary vehicle with a telematics device provided by their insurance company. These devices measure things like their speed, mileage and how often a person drives.

Among the survey respondents, 36% said they made small changes in how they drive, and 18% reported making significant changes.

“These findings suggest that having telematics devices installed in vehicles can play a beneficial role in promoting safe driving and reducing the frequency of auto accidents and their associated costs,” says Elizabeth Sprinkel, senior vice president of the IRC. “While we can’t say with certainty that the changes drivers make are always for the better, or whether beneficial changes that are made become permanent, we can confidently say that the introduction and use of telematics technology is a move in the right direction.”

Dr. Leon James, who runs the website and is professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, says that the fact that telematics devices give feedback to drivers is a piece that was missing from the driver safety equation for a long time. “I think that alone is going to revolutionize driving and give people the idea that they have to continue to improve their driving lifelong,” he says.

James addressed telematics in his 2000 book “Road Rage and Aggressive Driving,” back when the technology was just coming on the scene. Telematics still accounts for a small percentage of the marketplace, with telematics-based auto insurance policies having an estimated 1.8% market penetration in 2013, according to telematics company IMS. But these policies are growing in popularity, and projections point to a market penetration of nearly 20% by 2019, according to IMS figures.

Although James says one study never really proves anything definitively, future studies will tell if the trend continues.

James points out that according to the summary, one-third of drivers said they still didn’t change their behavior, which is still a significant number. “Whether it will influence behavior will depend on the driver’s attitude. From the perspective of safety, I would say it’s a good thing,” he says.

Kara Macek, spokeswoman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, says that although organizations like GHSA have worked to strengthen law enforcement and improve driver behavior, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. But assuming that drivers in the study are changing their behavior for the better, the findings are encouraging.

“It’s promising that something like voluntary devices could help to influence behavior. That’s certainly a positive,” Macek says. “The truth of the matter is that the person behind the wheel is still the most important safety feature in a car.”

Macek says that while speed is one of the easiest things to measure, it’s also one of the most challenging behaviors to change and that excessive speed contributes to one-third of traffic fatalities. “If we can’t get people to slow down to save their lives, maybe we can get them to slow down to save a buck,” she says.

Michael Barry, vice president of media relations for the Insurance Information Institute, says that there’s probably a lot of truth to the fact that drivers act differently when hooked up to a monitoring device. “When a driver realizes their auto insurer is going to have an accurate record of your driving habits, people tend to be safer drivers,” he says.

Not all drivers are willing to take part in these programs, though, with some citing privacy concerns about having a device collect data about them. Others, however, point to telematics as a good trend that’s improving driver behavior.

James testified in front of Congress during the late 1990s in congressional hearings on aggressive driving. During that testimony, he told Congress that there needed to be a driver improvement program attached to driver’s license renewal. “Now with telematics, that has become feasible.”

Experts say it’s unlikely that telematics devices will be mandated anytime soon, though. “I think from a state perspective, they just want to make sure mandatory minimum liability requirements are being met,” Barry says.

Macek says there’s a chance that cars will be driving themselves before there’s a mandate for telematics devices.

Until then, James believes that telematics could trigger all sorts of offshoots, not just for insurance companies but also in terms of measuring data on things like traffic accidents and stress factors, such as road rage and aggressive driving. Time can also create stress, such as when drivers are in a hurry and their behavior becomes more risky because they are running late. “Telematics could give relief to that kind of stress,” James says.

James says that he’s been encouraged to see that telematics has affected more people than it used to when he first started observing it. “The fact that more insurance companies are entering this field is a good idea because it focuses on drivers and what they can do in the car with live data,” he says. “I think that’s going to make a huge difference.”

How has the way you drive changed since having a telematics device installed in your car?

18% I’ve made significant changes.

38% I’ve made small changes.

38% I haven’t changed the way I drive.

6%   Refused.

Source: Insurance Research Council