Open Road

An insurance telematics box taught me to drive like a saint

I've just bought a Škoda Citigo, a car so basic it has wind-up windows. It doesn't have central locking and the reversing sensors take the form of asking passengers to get out of the car and make beeping noises. Not that you need them. It's the world's easiest car to park. Short, agile, and surprisingly fun. It was, however, chosen for just one criterion: insurance group.

My sons are now of an age where the government deems them old enough to drive. Insurance companies, on the other hand, have a different perspective. They believe you shouldn't be allowed to drive until you are in your twenties and have at least three years' experience.

To insure a teenager on a car in the UK you are generally looking at around £3,000 ($5,000) a year. Forget buying a rusty old banger. That will cost a fortune. Classics? Nope, no one under 21.

So it had to be a cheap, newish city runabout. And it had to have a telematics box fitted. I'd always assumed that the insurance boxes connected to the car's CAN bus through OBDII. That would give the insurance company lots of data – was it being driven hard when cold? Revs against speed and if the engine was on rather than just the ignition. But it seems that the box from my insurance company is self-contained needing only power. Inside it has a GSM SIM card and radio (2G because the 2G networks will outlast the 3G ones), a GPS, and gyroscopic tilt sensors.

From these it measures speed, speed through corners, acceleration, and braking. Your rating also takes into account the time of day. Driving after 10:00 pm is A Bad Thing. Insurance companies don't go on record admitting so, but they want you home well before the pubs shut.

From the insurance company Hastings Direct, you pay £200 ($300) for the box. Good driving can yield a discount of up to 30 percent in the subsequent year. So as I paid £900 ($1,300) initially, I'm looking at £500 ($750) next year. Providing everything is tickerty boo.

It will be. I drive the thing like a saint, always more than a tad below the speed limit. I'm so gentle on the acceleration you'd think I was pulling a dozen coaches. Then I go well out of my way to avoid braking. It's a lot like hypermiling, although without slip-streaming the big trucks.

It's a great discipline for driving. It encourages you to look further ahead. Good anticipation is always the key to road safety and you can see why the actuaries behind the metrics are right.

There is one aspect to driving with a black box that doesn't add safety. Braking hard is a bad thing. In the UK we have a lot of roundabouts, and while you can manage your speed to arrive quite slowly, if you do so you'll then have to accelerate away again and doing that too briskly is also A Bad Thing. So the telematics box encourages you to make a judgement call about oncoming traffic. This holds true at T-junctions too but is most acute at roundabouts. If there is something you deem to be far enough away you just roll out onto the roundabout.

The "safety" box has encouraged you to pull out into the path of moving traffic and then not accelerate away. But hey, it's a formula dreamed up by a profession which prides itself in being boring. "Actuaries are accountants who couldn't stand the excitement."

You grow to hate those people who push buttons at traffic lights and who step onto Zebra crossings.

But given that you have a dashboard that tells you your score it's quite fun. Have I beaten my previous high score? Can I get my rating to 100? I'll rush home (not too fast, of course) to see what my score is. Hastings has apps to allow you to read your dashboard, something which has appeal to parents who want to spy on their kids. Not that I can. I have a Microsoft Lumia and Hastings hasn't an app for that one.

The constant quest for better scores means I'll do some runs during the day, just to dilute my high night-driving penalty. I also pride myself in how sensitive I am on the pedals. I'm tempted to start driving barefoot.

The quest for ever-higher scores produces a dividend at the petrol pump. A real 54.8 miles to the gallon. I borrowed this Bentley Turbo R for three days this week. I got 11.4 mpg.

What the telematics box does not seem to do is change overall driving habits. I was every bit Mr. Toad behind the wheel of the Bentley.

My sons have not started driving yet. They are not corrupting my score. It will be very interesting to see how learning clutch control and lack of anticipation have an effect. Unfortunately you don't get full data. It would be nice to see the actual g-forces around corners and the kind of stats that the Nissan GT-R and Vauxhall VXR8 have built in, but it will be a long time before my teenagers get behind the wheel of a car like that.

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