By now many consumers are aware that a little black box stored under the hood of many newer cars records driving data.
The box tells how fast you were going and whether you applied the brakes or were belted in a collision. The data prove whether the safety systems worked properly and what can be done to make your car even safer.
So it knows you were going 55 mph when you insisted you were doing 5 mph and that you never touched the brake pedal or fastened your belts before running into another car.
That's why most motorists object to black boxes as an intrusion on their privacy and the right of their lawyers to earn a decent income suing automakers even if the driver is at fault for his own injuries.
But why can't insurance companies use a box to spot high- and low-risk drivers and adjust premium rates accordingly?
Progressive Insurance, the nation's third-largest auto insurer, has set out to do that. First it needs to identify the actions that lead to greater or lesser risk. After a two-year pilot program in Minnesota, it is launching a two-year nationwide test. Dave Huber, product development manager for the firm, is giving policyholders who volunteer an electronically sophisticated black box called a trip sensor to identify what factors determine risk.
"If you walk into a room and ask who thinks they are a good driver," Huber said, "everyone is going to raise their hand. We're giving them a black box and saying, 'Prove it.' "
The trip sensor, akin to having an insurance agent riding shotgun, notebook in hand, records how often and how far you drive, which days and what times, and how often and how hard you brake. Make, model and year of the vehicle and age and gender of the driver are also compiled.
"All insurance companies take into account the type of vehicle you drive," Huber said. "We want to know what's unique about the drivers of those vehicles that predicts those most likely to be involved in accidents and when."
The information is similar to what you give the agent, only the box eliminates having to swear to tell the truth.
"We know young male drivers are more at risk than young females," Huber said. "But what if we find that, based on certain driving habits and factors, certain young males are at less risk and shouldn't have to pay higher premiums like they all do now?"
About 5,000 policyholders took part in Minnesota, but Huber wants 15,000 for the nationwide test to ensure sufficient data. He's recruiting via e-mail or at gettripsense.progressive.com.
Volunteers get $50 to use the box and send the data to Progressive.
The test has merit, but why not make trip sensors mandatory to pinpoint those at high risk and make them pay a greater share?
When insurance firms raise rates, they cite having paid out too much in claims, which doesn't soothe those who didn't make any claims but have to pony up anyway along with the high-risk drivers.
But just as black boxes can provide evidence of who was really at fault in an accident, a trip sensor would prove who should pay higher insurance rates, and motorists would most likely argue that that would be a violation of their right to privacy.