Drivers turning to car insurers' apps

Aaron Crowe

These days, drivers can whip out their smartphones to find directions to that Italian restaurant serving that to-die-for lasagna or to a convenience store selling cheap gas. Now, car insurance companies are taking the usefulness of smartphones to a higher level.

Various car insurers are offering apps for iPhones, Android phones and similar devices that go beyond helping motorists find a tow truck or dial 911. Many of these apps let drivers document how a crash happened, photograph the damage, show where it happened via GPS and even start the claims process.

One car insurer, Travelers, says the number of insurance claims it received through smartphones with its Auto Accident Help app tripled in the first few months of 2011 compared with the previous year.

“If you’re kind of frantic and you’re not in your right mind, (these apps) try to keep you focused on the job at hand,” says Eugenio Santiago, director of user research at Key Lime Interactive. The consumer research firm studied four apps from car insurers: Allstate Mobile, GEICO GloveBox, Progressive and State Farm Pocket Agent.

State Farm Pocket Agent was the best app that Key Lime found for reporting accidents, allowing users to go line by line to describe what happened, Santiago says. “They do a great job of providing all of the options that you need,” he says.

State Farm's was the only app in the study that let a claim be submitted directly from a smartphone; State Farm and Travelers offer the only apps that CarInsuranceQuotes.com could find that let a driver do that.

So far, few State Farm customers are filing claims through the insurer's app.

"While we are pleased to offer the Pocket Agent as a resource to our customers and we want to make our services as accessible as we can, in relation to the 35,000 claims State Farm handles every day, the number coming from Pocket Agent is still very, very small," spokeswoman Vicki Harper says.

Many of the car insurers' apps are designed with drop-down lists so motorists can view all of the possibilities in an accident, such as how many cars are involved and how extensive the damage is. The accident checklist can include asking whether anyone is injured; if you answer “yes,” then the GEICO and Progressive apps, for example, direct you to call 911 immediately.

None of the car insurers' apps replaces the need to file a police report if you've been in an accident.

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