Recently, I switched insurance companies for my home and auto insurance. This is a pretty mundane type of thing, but what was interesting for me was that at one point my agent asked me if I would be interested in equipping my vehicle with a “black box” that would monitor my driving. The benefit (to me) would be potentially lower premiums, depending on how safe a driver the data had proven me to be. My initial reaction was one of mistrust in the insurance company – surely they did not intend to use this data for my benefit.

I am sure most of you have heard of this already, but for me it was an interesting proposition. Being in the data analysis business, I was well aware that insurance companies have been offering these options but I was not aware that it was being offered by this particular insurance company.

So here I was caught somewhat off guard. Having spent more than a decade working with Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) and Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) programs, in which flight data was routinely monitored for the purposes of improving flight safety, I was very familiar with the concept being proposed.

Not only that, but I participated in numerous meetings with airline pilots’ unions in which I was on the “other” side of the table, promoting data monitoring programs. I assured the pilot members that the data would only be used in aggregate form and that an individual pilot or crew could only be identified if the union’s “gate keeper” revealed the data. This was not just policy, either – it was technically impossible for anyone without the proper security credentials to access identifiable flight information. And even that information was only available for a limited time.

In my experience, this worked quite well. In my years working with airlines and other aircraft operators around the world, I have not experienced any case in which a crew or pilot was disciplined due to a flight data monitoring program. Quite the opposite – I worked on two cases in which flight data proved that the crews acted professionally and safely despite “eye witness” accounts to the contrary. Of course, there are cases where the data is used to prosecute crews after a major incident or accident, but that falls outside the realm of Flight Data Monitoring.

So, why my reluctance to sign up for a similar program to use data to monitor my driving? Initially, I was simply caught off guard. I was not expecting to be presented the option. Also, as I am getting older and my life less exciting, my insurance rates are not that high to begin with so the cost savings was not significant.

But the more jaded side of me still had reservations. Unlike a pilot with an airline or helicopter operator, I do not have a union or pilot’s group protecting my interests. Also, “de-identification” is not an option with the current programs the insurance companies proposed – the only way they can reduce MY insurance rate is to monitor MY driving. I know there are those that say, “Don’t do anything wrong and you have nothing to worry about”, but I am old enough now to know the world does not exactly work that way.

So, this was quite an interesting experience for me. Of course, I think that the use of data monitoring for improving automotive safety is a great thing and I hope that we see safer roads because of it (however, I think it will be quite a few years before that is a reality).

But perhaps more importantly for me professionally, it gave me a new found respect for the position taken by many pilots I have worked with in the past. There has to be 100% trust in any data monitoring program on both sides of the table for the programs to be successful and it is not enough for management to just say, “everything will be ok – trust us”. Education and discussion of concerns is of utmost importance when beginning any new data monitoring program. Once trust is lost, your program is headed for failure. And if you cannot establish trust, your program will never get off the ground.

I did not sign up for the data monitoring program with my insurance company this time, but I do intend to in the future once I have learned a bit more about their programs; not because I want to save a few dollars on my insurance rates, but rather because I support the idea of using data to improve transportation safety, regardless of the mode.

What is (or was) your initial reaction to data monitoring programs? Are you still skeptical or have you had enough positive experiences that you have that level of trust with the administrators of the program?