By on April 30, 2019

With mobile phones now a ubiquitous part of modern-day life, distracted driving has ballooned into a legitimate public safety problem. Alarming studies continue to pour in, with many claiming that driver cell phone use is likely underreported by authorities in crash reports. It’s hard to quantify, especially since nobody wants to admit that their moment of weakness may have contributed to an accident.

Add in a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey that found 30 percent of drivers aged 21 to 34 believe texting doesn’t negatively impact their driving, and you’d be forgiven for picking up your keys with sweaty palms.

A new study claims the issue has only gotten worse, with drivers spending more time on their phone than ever before. However, the way the data was acquired is disconcerting in itself. Insurance companies are tapping traffic data startups to monitor people’s phones, and they’re already capable of tracking millions of American devices. 

One of these companies is called Zendrive.

It’s marketed to consumers as a way to monitor and optimize their personal driving behaviors whilst simultaneously providing fleet-based services with analytics. However, the company also provides data to insurance companies and could help open a Pandora’s box of new charges and fees based on phone usage in vehicles. On the one hand, we’re totally against distracted driving and making it less palatable is probably the way to go. On the other, while we know that the selling of marketable information is big business these days, the amount of data companies like Zendrive collect and share with insurers shouldn’t leave anyone feeling comfortable.

Bloomberg reports that the company recently crossed usage data from the tens of millions of cellphones it monitors with a self-assessment to the same drivers. The verdict? People continue to vastly overestimate how competent they are behind the wheel, and overall phone usage is up for 2019. Zendrive said the worst distracted driving offenders were among the most likely to give themselves high marks for paying attention and estimated that around 80 percent of drivers will pick up their phone at least once by 4 p.m.

Numerous insurance companies already offer discounts to those practicing cell phone restraint (like Esurance’s DriveSense), but the glut of data also encouraged them to raise rates on those who don’t (or simply refuse to agree to have their cell phones monitored).

From Bloomberg:

Zendrive now has its monitoring technology on 60 million phones, roughly one of every four U.S. drivers. TrueMotion, a rival, is tracking distraction and other driving metrics for eight of the top 20 U.S. auto insurers, and an additional 30,000 drivers have voluntarily downloaded the TrueMotion system in attempt to self-regulate tendencies to talk and text at the wheel.

A third provider, Cambridge Mobile Telematics, monitors distracted driving for 35 insurers, including State Farm. In addition to siphoning smartphone data, Cambridge Mobile uses a Fig Newton-sized puck that provides even better metrics on vehicle performance and phone use. This quarter, the company shipped 8 million of the devices.

TrueMotion’s marketing director, Matt Fiorentino, claims distracted driving is more predictive of an eventual loss claim than pretty much any other trackable behavior — including speeding.

Fiorentino said individuals who frequently use their phone behind the wheel see roughly 20 percent more claims than other drivers. “This is creating a pretty clear picture,” he said, adding that the margins of underwriters who best identify inattentive drivers will improve, while less-responsible customers will be pushed onto other companies. Ultimately, it sounds as though pretty much every insurer will soon wish to keep tabs on your phone.

Obviously, this raises all kinds of privacy concerns, which puts it in line with almost every new technology in the automotive or tech industry these days. As connected cars become the new status quo, insurers will be equally likely to reach out to automakers for data vs requesting you install an app on your phone that tracks how often you’re using it. Just knowing someone is watching is supposed to help curb unwanted behavior.

Cambridge Mobile’s vice president of marketing, Ryan McMahon, said distraction levels dropped by 35 percent among participants who checked their data regularly. “Just seeing the results helps,” he said. “It’s almost like going into a restaurant and being able to see calories on a menu.”

Of course, that restaurant doesn’t then go out of its way to tell every healthcare provider how you plow through a case of donuts every Saturday. But it’s a solid analogy, otherwise.

ConnectedTravel, which previously collaborated with Honda on DreamDrive, claimed a 40 percent reduction in overall phone use in four out of five drivers who check their driving metrics daily. “We just provide you with stats, just like fantasy sports or anything else,” CEO Bryan Biniak said. “Nobody believes you can change peoples’ behaviors — that’s a common view in the industry … but when you start to create awareness, it’s impactful.”

Promoting good driving behaviors and awareness is supremely important; we’d just rather see it done through clever public service announcements. Someone coming on the radio to remind you that distracted driving is stupid, for example, or taking a minute to explain who has the right of way at a four-way stop would be far less invasive than a company perpetually tracking your mobile device. However, we can’t say with any certainty that it would be more effective. It seems that’s what insurance companies are banking on.

[Image: Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock]

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33 Comments on “Insurance Companies Are Keeping Tabs on How Often You Use Your Phone Behind the Wheel...”

  • avatar

    These apps and add-ons are willfully ignorant whether or not the driver and phone user are one and the same person. I inquired about this exactly when switching insurance companies recently. I was told if my wife and i both participated in the driver tracking program (for discounts, they swear it!) we would both be viewed as driving so long as we both had the app installed on our phones. I politely said that makes no sense and no thanks.

  • avatar

    I use my phone a lot, but it’s all hand free. Does that count as “using my phone?”

    • 0 avatar

      Nope. The primary distraction is driving one-handed, which requires a significant portion of our mental resources. The conversation itself requires very little.

      • 0 avatar

        …depends on the driver and the conversation: i drive much more poorly when my wife’s in the passenger seat demanding my immediate attention, but if she’s called my hands-free device for a casual conversation during my evening commute, where i’m at liberty to direct my attention where as see fit, no debilitation whatsoever…

        …if she were to call me in emotional duress demanding my immediate attnetion, i have no doubt that my driving performance would be distracted more similarly to the former situation than the latter…

      • 0 avatar

        responding to rpn453 above. not true – suggest you read this for a more accurate response…

  • avatar

    What’s next, a camera in the car to make sure you’re not eating while driving?

    • 0 avatar
      Steve Biro

      Don’t laugh. The latest version of Subaru’s Eyesight has a dash cam that monitors your face. The system will slow down and even stop the car if it doesn’t like where you’re looking for more than three seconds. All this… to accommodate a generation of drivers who can’t – or won’t – look up from their phones.

  • avatar

    Who puts these apps on their phones voluntarily?!

    This is my fear with things like the Cadillac Super Cruise or the Subaru system….they claim it is for cruise control or making sure you don’t get sleepy. Fine, that seems like a fine use.

    Except you know these companies are recording all that garbage and selling it without your knowledge. Now what has become necessary to provide a certain vehicle feature has been turned into who knows what.

    I also can’t believe people that wear fitbits for work etc. They claim it is to lower health insurance premiums. Yeah, uh-huh. Your work is tracking your movements.

    I’ve also seen a few times now that the new Credit Cards with the chips don’t just report a lump sum, they will now report itemized items. So now they know exactly what you’re buying. OK….except these few articles have also said that if you go to a bar and pay with a credit card, buy more than X drinks, and they know you live more than Y miles from home….they’re assuming that you’re driving buzzed/drunk whatever. I can GUARANTEE that is going to your insurance company as well. How long before the cops buy that info?

    It is too bad. Phones, cars, connected devices really do have some neat purposes. But that everything you touch now seems that it wants your data, and not just to provide the service (make a call, navigate somewhere, send an email etc) and you have no control over where it goes, who uses it, deleting it, checking it for accuracy etc is a serious serious problem.

    Forget all this. It may sound Luddite-ish but jeez. Stuff like this seems over the top to me.

    • 0 avatar

      A lot of people like it, use it, and see it as living in the modern world, not over the top.

      I recently bought a 128Gb iPad Air because my 16Gb iPad Air with the 7X processor was getting to be too slow and had less than 10Mb left in RAM.

      IOW, more room to download more apps on the new iPad Air. And we use the apps, all of them. Else we wouldn’t download them.

  • avatar

    I said it before and I’ll say it again. Big brother is not the threat. Corporate America is. I wonder how
    They do this with your phone…. Did we opt in because we use the cell carrier? Another piece of freedom ripped
    From us. F Them

    • 0 avatar

      Talk about naive…..

      Get rid if Big Brother, and you’d simply tell insurance companies to go stuff it.

      Corporate American is threat, specifically because there exists an asymmetrically armed Big Brother, whose purpose is to do their bidding.

      • 0 avatar

        You might even understand why there has been such advanced psychosis since Trump heat their chosen ‘choices.’

      • 0 avatar

        Let’s talk about naive…The Feds really don’t have any interest in the vast majority of individuals. Why would they? Those who stand out for some reason (my brother was visited by the Feds after a climbing trip to Afganistan in the late ’80s – two months later) but the reality is Uncle Sam has no interest in you. But Big Business has plenty of reasons to be interested in you because they want to separate you from your money. If you asked people in 1980 to carry a tracking device they would tell you to F-off. Today people do so willingly because it offers services of interest. No problem with trying to make money but when your behavior is collected against your will and sold to others that is a massive problem. You may be fine with a mandatory driver-behavior device in your car but I am not. Rest assured it is coming and with our present government is so biased toward the big business that there will be little effort to stop it. Open up your wallet stuki because Corporate America is coming to take your money. The fact that such a major invasion of privacy that this story discusses only generated 19 comments as of this writing is telling. Most are willing to give up privacy and accept that this is the future and it is ok. The sheep have rolled over, so get used to being penalized because you brake too hard or drive at 80 on the highway. Tell the insurance companies to stuff it? Give that a shot and tell us how it went.

        • 0 avatar

          Do you really believe people, in a vacuum, want to carry tracking devices?

          Some people accept it, not because they get paid for it, but because they would otherwise be forced to pay more. Absent government, there is no “forced to pay more.” You just tell whichever insurance company to, as I said, “go stuff it.” Don’t pay them a dime. Drive your car with the same insurance coverage Billy the Kid had on his horse. Anyone who don’t like you doing so can, again, go stuff it.

          If you, I or others end up having to drive around with a tracking device, it is specifically due to government involvement. Sure, government is doing it on behest of Big Business. Duh! That’s all any government has ever done, and will ever do.

          Government rules and regulations are, like all else, economic goods. Sold to the highest bidder. That will never change, no matter how well indoctrinated into chanting the opposite the dumb, clueless and naive might be. But no “corporation” will ever be able to force you to carry a tracking device in order to mount an engine to four wheels. That whole forcing part, is entirely due to government involvement.

  • avatar

    How many times have you sat at a stoplight, especially one that can be on the longer side.

    Light turns green.

    No one moves.

    Someone (me, probably) honks the horn.

    You see heads pop up in unison… move.

    I’ve missed light cycles because folks ahead have to finish their texting before they drive off.

    Of course, the guy/gal in the left lane at 61 mph on a 75 mph road, jawing on the phone is always classic, and I love it when it happens in a car that you KNOW has bluetooth.

  • avatar

    “Add in a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey that found 30 percent of drivers aged 21 to 34 believe texting doesn’t negatively impact their driving, and you’d be forgiven for picking up your keys with sweaty palms.”

    A friend’s wife, who is close to fifty years old and has a plethora of graduate degrees, thinks that texting doesn’t adversely impact her driving. When she said this, I called her out for having more accidents in the three years I’ve known her than anyone else I know of has ever had. She said she doesn’t have that many accidents and asked when I last caused one. I told her I went off the road in the rain twenty two years ago. She said that was ridiculous, that causing one accident a year was fine. I didn’t bother reminding her that she’d just crashed her Subaru while her Fiat was still in the shop. Texting was a factor in all of her accidents that I know of, but she says she texts all the time and only crashes some of the time.

    • 0 avatar

      Next time point out to her that the person in the OTHER CAR might not want be a victim in an accident. Nor the other hundreds of people she causes a traffic jam with rubbernecking or waiting for a tow.

      Its so utterly infuriating that people get into their cars, and suddenly nothing else exists.

      • 0 avatar

        I brought this up with another friend’s thirty-year-old girlfriend tonight at dinner. She completely agrees with the first woman’s metrics of acceptable intersection with other vehicles. They share political views too, although that should go without saying.

        • 0 avatar

          When every contact in your life is an opportunity to reinforce your negative political stereotypes, I’d say the plot’s been well and truly lost.

    • 0 avatar

      Some people are just delusional about their bad driving habits. I was riding with a coworker once who was using video chat with his kids. He was joking with his wife about how agitated I was, and even she was yelling at him to get off the phone. I was seriously pissed off that he was putting my life at risk, but he just did not get it. Couldn’t comprehend how far over the line he was.

    • 0 avatar

      She should have her driving PRIVILEGE revoked. Period. Moron.

      • 0 avatar

        You can’t do that for just texting. Most of the time, it’s entirely harmless. Being young and being old, “statistically” increases your probability of being in accidents as well. So, if you want to ban absolute every tiny little facet of life you don’t agree 100% with, you will always end up with punishments meek enough that many just ignore them.

        What could, and should be done, is punish causing harm to someone else, or someone else’s property, in an accident. Harshly enough to make sure darned near everyone noone dares engaging in known risky behavior. But that causation then first have to be proven in a criminal court. You are, after all, innocent until proven guilty. But then, once you are proven guilty, gloves off.

        Do that, and you’ll solve the problem of needlessly risky driving in pretty much no time. Something making mountains out of molehills, and then “punishing” the “lawbreakers” you have just turned everyone into by a “stern warning” and a pointless fine, will never, ever accomplish.

        • 0 avatar

          You’re on a roll. One might a guy in a Ford Expedition came down my street in a manner that involved hitting about a dozen cars that were parallel parked and another seven or eight that were parked in driveways that he or she went up thinking they were home until ramming a car or two and then backing up and hitting some more cars. This went on until someone woke up and pulled the driver from their Expedition to stop them. It really sucked for the victims, as chances were that the perp’s insurance wouldn’t cover everyone.

          Police in the blue state made ZERO effort to contact victims and explain why their cars were wrecked. ZERO. At least surely this impaired psychopath would be treated to draconian penalties for the harm they enacted on our community! Forget about it. They received virtually no punishment, as it was determined that they did a couple hundred thousand dollars in property damage as a result of a KNOWN medical condition instead of a being drunk.

          The perp had literally been in similar situations before and continued to drive, but that was considered completely inculpable. He or she was run out of the neighborhood by aggressive shaming, but the law did absolutely nothing to proffer justice.

        • 0 avatar

          ” So, if you want to ban absolute every tiny little facet of life you don’t agree 100% with, you will always end up with punishments meek enough that many just ignore them.”

          ‘Tiny facet of life’?

          Its completely unnecessary and harmful to other drivers on the road. Why do you think the industry spent (or was forced to spend) millions of dollars to develop and perfect hands-free technology for in-car use?

          So the drivers wouldn’t be a harm to themselves and others mashing a keypad blindly and being distracted by those oh-so-crucial texts.

          Even IF all the physical harm you do is to yourself and your own vehicle—you might cause a huge traffic jam in our already congested and overcrowded highways. Not to mention diverting emergency vehicles from an area where they might be needed.

          Your example of old people is flawed—they are most likely using their car as a crucial method of transportation. And besides— if it is proven that their mental acuity or physical abilities are impaired enough, they DO get their licenses taken away.

          Non hands-free texting while driving is NOT ever a necessity of life. It is a personal luxury.

          • 0 avatar
            Matt Foley

            Go back and re-read stuki’s post. He’s advocating for a tiered punishment system that hits violators with much harsher penalties if their risky behavior actually results in injury or property damage.

            Which is brilliant.

            There’s a difference between glancing at your map app to see if there’s congestion on your chosen route home, and writing texts while driving.

            There’s a difference between driving 30 mph through a school zone at 10:30 am – when all the kids are inside – and 8:15 am, when the area is full of children and buses and minivans and pedestrians.

            There’s a difference between having two beers with a steak dinner and driving home, and going bar-hopping for six hours and driving home blotto. (Why do you think drunks always tell the cops they’ve had “two beers”? Because that’s when a sensible person stops drinking if he knows he’s going to have to drive.)


        • 0 avatar

          +1, stuki. If being on your phone causes an accident, I’m all for throwing the book. It’s not too hard for police to deduce that someone was swiping right on Tinder when he ran that red and piled into a minivan full of preschoolers. The only question is whether they want to do anything with the info, and contrary to ol’ Todd’s “blue state cops” crack, too many simply don’t give a s**t, or (more likely) don’t have the manpower to give the full “CSI” treatment to routine traffic accidents. And it’s not unreasonable that cops would back-burner stuff like simple fender benders, or parked cars that get trashed; I’m sure that if an accident involves injuries, they’re more likely to be “on it,” so to speak.

          The cops in my red-as-hell neck of the woods certainly don’t care about things like child welfare (at least they didn’t in my case). On the other hand, they go directly into full protect-and-serve mode whenever they see someone driving through town with a “Jalisco” sticker on the back of his car.

          • 0 avatar

            This is for Matt Foley, no more replies allowed on his thread.

            I did read what he wrote. Perhaps you should read what *I* wrote.

            My comment was regarding non hands-free texting which has NO EXCUSE for happening while driving. NONE. There is no reason for you to be on your phone texting somebody and not paying attention to the road while driving on a roadway with your fellow drivers. The same thing for eating, shaving, doing your hair, whatever.

            That you would defend this is shocking. And no, using a non-hands free map app while at speed has no place in a car either.

            Your example is flawed for my reason–the correct analogy would be somebody that somebody who DOES get blotto, but doesn’t cause any property harm or harm to his fellow man while out driving (but still gets pulled over) shouldn’t be punished as much as somebody who does cause those two things.

            So, nothing to stop this person from going out AGAIN and this time causing a wreck, maybe even MORE likely to do so next time because he/she is overconfident that they happened to not wreck the first time.

            Nobody ever died that I’m aware of from somebody not being able to send a reply text while driving. Plenty of people have died in auto wrecks from non-hands free distracted drivers on their phones.

            Personally, you shouldn’t have to wait for somebody else’s selfish, reckless disregard for their fellow man to result in harm before you give a suitable, deterring punishment.

  • avatar

    I find it very difficult to text while driving a car with a manual. Same with talking on the phone. Hands free is the only way.

    The Ford Sync – 2014 non-touch screen version – can be infuriating though since it doesn’t always connect to my phone which leads to a lot of shouting at Siri.

  • avatar

    OK, here’s what I want to know.

    Insurance companies are tapping traffic data startups to monitor people’s phones, and they’re already capable of tracking millions of American devices

    How do they do this? Do they just know that “Tom’s cell phone texted a 7:11, 7:19, 9:25am….etc, and voice was on at 8:02-8:07, and X app was running from 10:15-10:25”

    I’m very concerned with distracted drivers.

    Manual transmissions would dramatically reduce that–I have a friend who is expressly looking for a decent used car with a manual trans for his 16-yo for that reason. (of course, they also reduce corporate America’s chance to profit off of you)

    But what I want to know right now is, HOW DO THESE START-UPS MONITOR MY PHONE? Shouldn’t only Verizon know what my phone is doing? Does Verizon ‘sell’ them this data? Or is Verizon going to sell/give it to insurance companies?

    • 0 avatar


      Same question here. Looking at the source code for the app (or someone at the insurance company ratting them out) would be revealing.

      Do they monitor the activity of other apps in the software load (such as phone or text apps) or sending GPS data to the mothership so they can geo-locate you? My guess is they view it as strictly transactional with no concern for your concerns so expect little restraint on what they do and how they do it.

      Before caving into this carrot-and-stick coercion I’d grab one of the old phones out of the heap, get a T-Mobile SIM card and pony up $100 for a year’s worth of pre-paid service. That phone would sit safe and warm at home, waiting for calls from Craigslist sellers and the insurance company (assuming they haven’t crafted countermeasures to defeat this).

      This article raises more questions than it answers, and a follow-up with what the user agreements contain and what “incentives” they offer for compliance would be, umm, helpful to put it mildly.

  • avatar

    My biggest question, aside from the obvious privacy concern, is this: how, exactly, do these companies define “being on your phone”?

    Is it phone calls, and if so, can they tell the difference between a call that’s hands-free (which isn’t much of a distraction) and one that’s not? Does “texting” include being able to see your texts on your infotainment screen and pick a canned response like “OK” (which I can do with my car, and, again, isn’t much of a distraction)? Does “being on apps” include things like streaming music, and what about Android Auto or Apple Car Play, which (assuming you plug your phone in when you get in the car) are “on” during your entire drive?

    How sophisticated is this monitoring? If it’s sophisticated enough to deduce the “truth” from situations above, then why would I be OK with that level of intrusion to begin with?

    This is the problem with privacy, folks – it’s not that insurance companies don’t have a vested interest in safety, which dovetails with our vested interests, but rather that this feels like a really good way to “gotcha” people who really don’t pose a distracted-driving risk into paying more.

  • avatar

    I have seen how poorly some of those 21-34 year olds drive and texting may not impact them as much as a more “seasoned” driver. A lot of them see a car as any other appliance and if you crash one, you just get another.

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