I’m no Luddite, but I’m not entirely down with the whole voluntary renunciation of electronic privacy. Whenever Facebook or Twitter or my phone asks if it can “use my location,” I always click no. And I’m sure that when I do this, my iPhone quietly snickers and tracks me anyway. But my theory is that if I’m going to give you personal information, what’s in it for me?
Progressive insurance has an answer to that question: money. Progressive’s Snapshot program offers a potential discount to policyholders who agree to let the company take a real-time look at their driving habits. The Snapshot is a small device that plugs into your car’s OBD-II port and tracks your driving. After a month, Progressive looks at the data (beamed in via the cell network — there’s no GPS) and calculates whether the driver is eligible for a discount. So far, the company says that participants in the program have saved an average of $150 per year. To find out whether I have the stuff good-driver discounts are made of, I procured a Snapshot and plugged it into my car for a month.
According to the rules, Snapshot can generate a discount but not a surcharge — unless you live in Rhode Island. The device logs your speed, but that’s not a factor in the calculations because Progressive doesn’t know where you are — you might be doing 65 mph in a 70 zone or 45 mph through a car wash (although one wonders if a few trips into the triple digits would disqualify you from a safe-driver discount). The deciding factors are what time of day you drive, how far you drive, and how forcefully you brake.
For instance, driving at 2:30 a.m. isn’t great from an insurance-industry standpoint. Bad things happen then. Sure, you’re a model citizen. You were working late on your microloan program to fund humanitarian efforts in Africa, sober as a judge, but what about everyone else? Statistically speaking, at 2:30 a.m. every other car on the road is helmed by an intoxicated prostitute who’s fleeing police while texting, listening to Ke$ha, and throwing empty cans of Four Loko out the window. If you think that characterization is sexist, I remind you that Ke$ha fans can be women, too.
Another parameter Progressive examines is braking, since gentle braking apparently correlates to low insurance claims. During my month with the Snapshot, I drove the way I always do, with the small pod under the dash chirping happily every so often, probably to commend me on a job well done. I found that if you turn up the radio loud enough, you barely notice it after a while.
It turns out that the Snapshot’s happy chirp is an audible reprimand that you’re braking too hard. I heard the alarm many times — thirty-six times on one day, according to Progressive, whose spokesperson asked if I was joking or trying to drive like a maniac just to test the system. Honestly, I wasn’t. But with that thirty-six hard-brake day and eleven others with double-digit tallies for abrupt deceleration, I wouldn’t be getting any discount.
In my defense, there was one day when I had no hard braking events. Admittedly, I logged zero miles that day. Maybe I started the car and moved it from one side of the driveway to the other. But I did so with the utmost care and caution.
While I don’t deny that my driving style errs on the side of hasty progress, Snapshot has a few holes in its logic. If you’re approaching a yellow light, Snapshot is an incentive to risk running the red rather than hitting the brakes. If a deer jumps out in front of you, Snapshot would prefer that you swerve into the oncoming lane rather than mash that brake pedal. What if you game the system by aggressively engine braking, lest Snapshot tsk-tsk your indulgent use of the ol’ pads ‘n’ rotors? That would be a stupid way to drive.
As my wife put it — she being responsible for at least half of those aggressive pedal stomps — “I’m glad I didn’t get a discount. It means I don’t drive like a [derogatory word for a person who might get a discount].” Of course, now that this experiment is over, I’ve pulled the snitch from the Chariot of Chaos and returned to an off-the-grid relationship with my actual insurance company. And thanks to this experience, I’m now driving much slower. As far as they know.