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Pay-by-the-mile insurance targets green drivers

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Monday, June 01, 2009
ATSOdometer Jeffrey Lang is hoping the time is finally right to change how drivers pay for car insurance. For years the president of Portland-based Gales Creek Insurance Services has lobbied lawmakers and insurance companies to make the shift to pay-by-the-mile auto insurance. It has been a long grind, but he is releasing a product to market this summer.

Pay-as-you-drive auto insurance is a perennial favorite of policy wonks and conservationists as a simple way to reduce traffic, air pollution and car accidents. But six years after the Oregon Legislature began offering tax credits for mileage-based programs, not one insurance company has signed up enough drivers to qualify.

Lang, a bicycle commuter who studied urban planning at Berkeley, aims to change that. His 17-employee firm works out of a third-floor office in Union Station providing creative insurance products for nonprofits and municipalities, and he’s hoping to find a similar niche for pay-by-the-mile car insurance. He sees it as a useful tool not only for encouraging people to drive less but also for improving the data formula used by insurance companies to set rates.

The first step to setting up a new policy would be to install a monitoring device under the dashboard, similar to the navigation systems that have exploded in the marketplace in recent years (although not all models use GPS technology for privacy reasons). Lang recently traveled to the East Coast to sample several devices on the market.

“Once you have a good system you could monitor things that could create good actuarial data,” says Lang. “We want to reward people who drive at the least risky time, for example. We’re also interested in monitoring the lead-footed driver.”

That’s a lot of monitoring. It remains to be seen how closely drivers are willing to be watched by their insurance companies, given recent uproars over phone-tapping and electronic surveillance. The American Civil Liberties Union has raised privacy concerns about the potential abuses of granting new access to insurance companies.

Another question involves money. If pay-by-the-mile insurance results in lower premiums for occasional drivers, how would insurance companies compensate for those lost revenues? It seems unlikely they will absorb those losses for the good of the planet.

Still, given the proven willingness of Oregonians to pay more for green products such as wind power and organic fruit, finding people to go green while saving money shouldn’t be difficult. Progressive Insurance has been experimenting with “usage based” auto insurance in Oregon since December 2006, but has yet to offer it through brokers. Progressive’s general manager of the program, Richard Hutchinson, won’t share how many policies have been written here, but he does say, “We’re trying to get the lead in this area.”

So is Lang. He hopes to sign up 1,000 people for the upcoming launch of his version. “We want to prove to Oregon that this is viable,” he says.

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