When Big Brother is Riding Shotgun: Driver Data Tracking Apps and Car Accidents

When Big Brother is Riding Shotgun: Driver Data Tracking Apps and Car Accidents

“I always feel like somebody's watching me
And I have no privacy (oh, oh)
I always feel like somebody's watching me
Tell me, is it just a dream?”

- “Somebody’s Watching Me,” by Rockwell

From George Orwell’s best-selling dystopian book 1984 to singer Rockwell’s 1984 hit song “Somebody’s Watching Me,” popular culture has long been fascinated by what it means to live in a surveillance society.

But while “Big Brother” remains a frightening piece of fiction, “Big Insurance” has begun to use technological advances to take a seat as an invisible passenger in many cars - watching and recording a person’s driving habits.

Many motor vehicle insurance companies have begun to use telematics (a combination of telecommunications and informatics) through pre-installed car components or plug-in apps on mobile phones, to track data from cars and their drivers.

In this blog post, I explore what telematics and driver safety apps mean for Ontario drivers. While there are some definite benefits to this technology, drivers should consider some of the drawbacks before using it.

What Are Telematics?

Devices that have the ability to connect to a telecommunication network can send, receive, and store data. In some cases, when the device has Global Positioning Systems (GPS) enabled, this information can be used to control moving objects such as cars.

Telematics are often used by commercial transportation fleets, but are also increasingly available in personal vehicles to:

  • navigate roads
  • provide roadside assistance in emergencies
  • run remote diagnostics
  • download firmware updates

How Does the Insurance Industry use Telematics?

Before telematics, insurance companies would use a variety of data to assess the risk of insuring drivers.

This data could include a past driving record (accidents, traffic tickets), the replacement cost of the vehicle, and non-personal demographic information which reveals that certain people are statistically more likely to make insurance claims. For example, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in its 1992 Bates decision that insurance companies were permitted to use age, sex, and marital status when assessing premiums, even though discrimination against people based on these categories is generally prohibited.

With the advent of telematics, insurance companies were able to provide pay-as-you-go policies which assessed rates based on the distance you drive each year, and pay-as-you drive/use policies which incorporated evidence of safe driving behaviour to offer reduced rates for defensive drivers.

For instance, some insurance providers will ask drivers to use a telematic app to record information that could demonstrate to the insurer that they have a reduced risk of being involved in an accident, because they:

  • Used their vehicle infrequently
  • Drove on certain types of roads (city versus highway driving)
  • Drove at certain times of the day (rush hour versus off-peak, daylight versus darkness)
  • Obeyed speed limits
  • Took turns slowly
  • Accelerated smoothly
  • Braked gradually
  • Avoiding distractions such as phone calls
  • Were not involved in incidents where safety gear such as airbags deployed

Allowing insurance companies to have access to this information was initially pitched as a way to reduce insurance rates for safe drivers. However, recently some governments, including Ontario’s, permitted insurance companies to increase premiums for drivers whose data showed evidence of risky behaviour.

Are Telematics a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

Like most types of technology, there are pros and cons to using telematics and driving apps.


  • Lower insurance rates for people who demonstrate safe driving habits: This can be an especially good incentive for people who belong to demographics deemed to be at higher risk of making a claim.
  • Despite government approved changes, many insurers will not raise rates for people who do not demonstrate driving habits that would reduce rates.
  • Greater awareness: Drivers who are aware they are being monitored become more aware of their driving habits and consciously alter their behaviour.
  • Eliminates distractions: Some apps can automatically turn off phone notifications when a user is driving or provide an automated response that alerts a person trying to contact the driver that their message will be delivered once the car is parked. One BC driver fought a distracted driving charge by using an app to prove his phone could not have been used when he was driving.
  • Accident safety: Some driver apps will alert a driver to upcoming accidents or road hazards. Others will activate in the event of an accident. Depending on the app, this could mean turning on a phone camera and microphone to record what is happening, store emergency contact information, and provide information on what to do following an accident.
  • Evidence: In the event you are in an accident with no witnesses and you are not at fault, data from these apps could be used as a part of forensic investigations to support your claim for damages.


  • Loss of privacy: Plug-in and on board telematics usually limit data collection to vehicle- related events, but phone apps can record and transmit a great deal of other data not related to driving.
  • Promotes riskier driving: If an app considers sudden stops to be a demerit but gives running yellow lights a pass, it may unintentionally encourage unsafe driving behaviour.
  • Unfair categorization: Not all events on the road are within a driver’s control. Allowing passengers to use your phone while you’re driving could cause insurers to consider you a distracted driver. Swerves and hard braking to avoid other careless drivers in certain situations may also be used to assess you poorly. Does raw data account for nuance in driving or does it provide a skewed picture?
  • Insurance monopoly: If the same insurer represents both drivers in an accident they may have an incentive to selectively use data from one or both drivers to assign almost equal fault. This keeps settlement payouts to a minimum.
  • Evidence: If you are involved in an accident which was primarily the fault of another driver but your telematic data shows you were speeding, engaging in less than ideal driving behaviour, or that you had received warnings about vehicle maintenance that were not acted upon, this data may be used to demonstrate contributory negligence that would otherwise be unknown.

Are Telematic Insurance and Driver Apps Worth the Risk?

Polls asking Canadians whether they would want to use telematics have produced conflicting results.

In 2014, 75 per cent of respondents to an Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada poll said they were concerned about telematics privacy. The following year, a Canadian Automobile Association suggested 53 per cent of people polled would not agree to less expensive auto insurance in exchange for telematic monitoring.

However, by 2018, a Leger poll for Belair Direct found 74 per cent of people would agree to use a driver monitoring app to receive a “personalized car insurance premium.”

Deciding whether applying for telematic insurance rates or using driver data tracking apps is right for you is a personal decision.

However, if you or a loved one have been hurt in a serious motor vehicle accident and you are wondering if telematic data may help or hurt your claim for damages, one of our car accident lawyers at Rastin Gluckstein Personal Injury Lawyers are here to help answer your questions.

When you contact our law firm for a free, no obligation initial consultation, we will listen to your story with empathy, provide information about your rights, and let you know if we believe we can get you the compensation you deserve.

To learn more about our commitment to full-circle client care, contact us today.

Sources Consulted but Not Cited:


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