Tracking technologies cut joy-riding and expensive insurance rates

Young drivers are often clumped into one broad “under 25” category by law enforcement, insurance companies and society at large. The bad judgements and accidents of a small proportion of joy-riders and novices demonize the rest. But GPS-based tracking technologies are now being used to track individual behaviour and even to change it.

Interventions for young offenders
A host of problems feeds into offences such as auto theft and joy-riding. Many provinces such as Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia are fitting young offenders with GPS-enabled ankle bracelets to enforce curfews and track their movements. Manitoba recently launched a pilot project to track 20 of its highest-risk young auto thieves with these devices.

“Each region has its own unique elements,” explains Brent Apter, project manager of the Winnipeg Auto Theft Suppression Strategy (WATSS). “In port cities like Vancouver and Montreal, vehicles are typically stolen for resale, but in Winnipeg, it’s primarily for joy-riding – young people get a rush.”

In 2005, the city’s auto theft incidents hit epidemic levels, he says. “Winnipeg is called the auto theft capital for North America, and we’re vying with Surrey for that dubious title.”

Although the WATSS program has managed to reduce auto theft rates by almost 50 per cent over the past two years, there are critical public safety issues that still need to be addressed, he says. To this end, the province has lobbied the federal government for changes to strengthen the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

“The dangerous operation of a vehicle turns it into a weapon,” says Apter. “We’ve had police and civilians injured and road fatalities as a result of people driving stolen vehicles. That’s the impetus for treating it as a more substantive offence, as it’s being treated as just a property offence now.”

The objective in using the tracking devices is to provide a mechanism to break the cycle of recidivism in young offenders and prevent potentially dangerous incidents before they occur, he says. Many of these young people live in chaotic family environments, and have poor impulse control.

“So if they’re making bad decisions such as leaving home during their curfews, we want to contact the youth and intervene so they can get back into compliance with court-ordered conditions. Contact is as frequent as every three hours for some of the worst offenders. Response from youths has been relatively positive – some have said our awareness of where they are and what they’re doing helps them comply.”

Manitoba is using active GPS technology for the pilot. Passive GPS is older technology that tracks movements in the course of a day, and then uploads the information via phone lines to a server at night. “This only provides a history after the fact,” says Apter. “With active GPS, the person can be tracked every few minutes, and we can set special zones, called inclusion zones. If someone is supposed to be at school during certain hours but leaves that inclusion zone, an alert is sounded.”

WATSS staff will respond by making contact with the young offender via cell phones supplied to them as part of the program to find out the reason. Apter adds the tracking devices are used as adjuncts to the monitoring and guidance provided by humans in the program, and not as replacements. “We allow our staff to intervene at critical junctures in young offenders’ lives.”

At the back-end, setting up an active GPS monitoring system in-house can be expensive and complex, as negotiations need to be made with carriers for access via cellular systems, he says. Instead, Manitoba contracted the services of Jemtech Inc., a Vancouver-based electronic monitoring provider, and partnered with the province of Nova Scotia, which has a similar tracking program in place, to reduce the technology costs.

Black boxes reduce insurance rates
Tracking technology is also helping young people at the other end of the spectrum. The small number of joy-riders and accident-prone novices skews insurance rates for the entire category of young drivers, says Stephen Bath, senior manager at the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC).

The ICBC is using sophisticated analytics provided by Gary, N.C.-based SAS Inc. to tackle unfair assumptions about young people’s driving habits and the exorbitant rates they’re charged for insurance. Most insurance companies use two dimensions only, correlating age with number of accidents, explains Bath. On this basis, young people as a group do have a disproportionate number of accidents. But when a third dimension is factored in, a different picture emerges.

“When you look at the actual exposure of young drivers, there’s a huge correlation between the amount they drive and for what purpose,” he says. “If you think about it, any time you go out, no matter what the time or weather, who’s serving you in restaurants, bars, and gas stations? Our economy depends on young people doing these service jobs, and they have to drive to get to them.”

While there’s no question there are novices and joy-riders in the group, these skew the rates tremendously for the rest, he says. Instead of making broad assumptions about a young driver based on group behaviour, the ICBC is working on a program to consider the specific behaviour of each individual in its pricing. He points out the technology to track a person’s actual driving behaviour with GPS-enabled black boxes is available, and many progressive insurance companies are running pilots with the technology.

This is an emerging trend in auto insurance, he adds. “This type of micro-pricing will be evidence- based, and allows people to co-manage their own risk. So if you don’t drive as much or avoid specific areas, you can get cheaper insurance. But a lot of analysis needs to be done to support this approach.”

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