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Companies, Insurers Try Devices To Monitor Drivers [The Hartford Courant, Conn.]

Sept. 10--Companies with fleets of cars or trucks could reduce crashes and the price of commercial auto insurance by using an emerging technology called telematics to monitor drivers' every move, according to insurers and technology researchers.

Similar to a global positioning system, or GPS, the devices connect to a vehicle's motor and transmit a sweeping range of information to software operated on an office computer, smartphone or laptop at a company's headquarters -- a loose engine belt, a driver cornering too quickly, the pressure on the brakes or the vehicle's exact location.

Property-casualty insurers and some companies see telematics as a way to reduce risk by gathering data about how vehicles are being operated and using the information to coach drivers of delivery trucks, taxicabs and other commercial vehicles.

But some drivers say the devices are an insulting encroachment on their privacy and call into question their competence and judgment.

"What I don't like is the constant monitoring," said Dave Lucas, secretary-treasurer of the Teamsters Local 671 in Bloomfield. "It's very scary. Somebody's watching you all the time."

The reason there's a market for telematics, though, is that everyone is concerned about liability, according to Leonard Levine, chairman of Levine Distributing Co. in Norwich, a beer distributor that runs 20 to 25 delivery trucks per day and 12 to 15 vans operated by the sales team.

"It's mostly these kind of directives come down from insurance carriers," he said. "They say, 'You know if you put these things in your trucks, you can save yourself a couple of grand on premiums.' "

The Travelers Cos. announced this week that it would offer a 15 percent discount on commercial auto insurance for the effective use of telematics technology.

Recent research by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute shows that "combining onboard safety monitoring with behavioral coaching leads to a significant reduction in the number of risky driving events," said Jeff Hickman, the institute's lead researcher.

While Travelers offers a discount to companies that use telematics systems, the insurer says it doesn't need to contend with the debate about privacy concerns.

"This is fundamentally about a customer who decides to use telematics devices, and, if so, there's a potential that they may qualify for a discount," said Scott Higgins, president of Travelers Commercial Accounts.

For Levine, the cost to buy a system isn't worth the available discount on commercial auto insurance, he said. Also, he doesn't have a lot of turnover among his drivers, who tend to stay for 20 years or longer.

The systems are marketed at trade shows by companies such as Qualcomm, Xata Corp. and WebTech Wireless. The cost can range from more than $2,000 per vehicle to less than $500 per vehicle, said Dominique Bonte of New York-headquartered ABI Research, a technology market research firm that published a recent analysis of telematics last month.

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The devices are worth the cost for UPS, which developed its own proprietary system and plans to equip more than 22,000 delivery trucks by the end of the year. In a statement, UPS said the system gives insight into a vehicle's performance and condition, and helps pinpoint opportunities to coach drivers on improving safety, customer service, fuel consumption, emissions and maintenance costs.

To see more of The Hartford Courant, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.courant.com/.

Copyright (c) 2010, The Hartford Courant, Conn.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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