Car insurer plans anti-distraction discount for teens

Marcia Frellick

A car insurance company is giving an unusual gift to members who are parents of new teen drivers: a device that will keep their teens from talking, surfing or texting on cellphones when they’re behind the wheel.

Plans down the road include offering parents a discount on rates if their teens use the device.

Member-owned insurer Privilege Underwriters Reciprocal Exchange (PURE), has teamed up with Cellcontrol, a developer of distracted driving products, for a program aimed at preventing distracted driving by teenage drivers. PURE has offices in Illinois, Florida, New York and South Carolina.

As part of the pilot program, PURE is giving free devices for a year to 100 drivers under age 18. It offers the service at a discount ($95 instead of $130) for all members.

How does it work?

The system works this way: The Cellcontrol device plugs into an on-board diagnostics port, which is under the steering wheel in vehicles made in 1996 or after, and shuts down mobile devices – cellphones, laptops, and tablets – while the vehicle is moving.

If you come to a stop, the phones, laptops and tables will work again. This trigger is coupled with an app loaded onto a mobile device so that only the driver’s device is disabled, not passengers’ devices. In other words, your phone won’t lock up if your teen is a passenger in a cab. Drivers still can listen to music on a mobile device, for instance, and still can dial 911 at any time. Access to certain apps and certain incoming calls can be programmed in with a parent’s approval.

Of course, some teens will try to outsmart their parents and get around the controls. But if a teen tampers with the device in any way, "we will know about it,” says Chuck Cox, senior vice president at Cellcontrol, and any attempts will be reported electronically to the parents.

Unlike some other distracted driving tools, Cellcontrol works on cellphones and smartphones alike, as long as a phone is Bluetooth-enabled and can download apps, Cox says. Cellcontrol is compatible with mobile devices such as BlackBerry, Android, Windows, Symbian and Brew. One big exception here: So far, Cellcontrol isn't compatible with the iPhone.

Numbers explain the risk

The move to curtail distracted driving is fueled by increasingly grim statistics. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

  • Texting while driving creates a crash risk 23 times greater than that for non-distracted driving.
  • More than 3,000 people in the United States were killed in distraction-related crashes in 2010.
  • Drivers under age 25 are two to three times more likely than older drivers to read or send text messages or email.

Robert Hunter, director of insurance at the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America, says other companies have linked insurance discounts to anti-distraction devices, but this one is unusual in that it’s a specific product tied to specific benefits. PURE plans to offer discounts on car insurance premiums for Cellcontrol users, but it declines to give a timeframe.

Hunter says basing insurance discounts on safe driving is more appropriate than the current movement in the industry to consider education, occupation and financial habits in determining a policyholder's risk.

Parents want peace of mind

John Lucker, principal and insurance expert at Deloitte Consulting LLP, says he sees the biggest value in PURE’s program in providing peace of mind to parents when their children start to drive. Parents already are getting the message that their kids are texting or talking on the phone too much, he says.

Lucker points out that Cellcontrol can’t compensate for other distractions in the car -- teens still can turn around to talk to their friends, eat a cheeseburger or put on makeup while driving.

“I’m not sure that this particular mechanism guarantees any type of better driving behavior, other than you have one less thing to be distracted by,” Lucker says.

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