BOSTON (CBS) – You’ve probably seen the ads on TV for a device drivers plug into their cars to save money on insurance premiums. But the I-Team found a growing number of consumers have complained the popular program ended up costing them money, or even put them in danger on the road.
Massachusetts driver’s car suddenly shuts off
While shopping around for insurance in March, James Manning was intrigued by the potential insurance savings offered by Progressive Snapshot.
The company mailed Manning the small device that plugs into the diagnostic port beneath the steering wheel. For a month, Progressive would monitor Manning’s driving habits to see if he traveled late at night or was prone to sudden braking.
If the results were good, Manning hoped to save up to 30 percent on his monthly premium.
“I’m a pretty safe driver, but I was driving even safer,” he said.
However, shortly after installing Snapshot in his 2005 PT Cruiser, Manning noticed random lights on his dashboard flicker.
And then, as he drove his daughter and nephew to school in Great Barrington, Manning said his car suddenly shut off.
“It was pretty scary,” he told the I-Team. “I had to yank the car to the right to safely pull it into a parking lot since it didn’t have any power steering or power brakes.”
The car was towed to a mechanic, who recommended a tune-up and new battery.
But a few days later, the car suddenly stalled again.
“At that point, I’m thinking the Snapshot device was responsible,” Manning said.
Consumer complaints mount
Manning isn’t the only driver who arrived at that conclusion.
The I-Team found a long list of complaints online from consumers who said the Snapshot device suddenly shut off their cars or damaged the electrical components.
In 2013, a Florida driver filed a class-action lawsuit, claiming Progressive’s Snapshot had drained car batteries to the point they needed replacement.
A judge ultimately determined the case did not meet the threshold for class certification and the plaintiff settled with Progressive, according the lead attorney.
However, buried in the court documents, the I-Team found a deposition with a Progressive claims specialist. Through February 2014, the claims specialist testified Progressive Snapshot had tallied 8,121 customer complaints and $582,009 in claims payouts.
Sean Kane, founder of Safety Research & Strategies, said the details of the complaints are concerning.
“That’s the kind of problem that needs to be investigated and recalled,” Kane said. “If you are shutting down a car without the expectation of the driver or without turning the key, you’ve got a problem.”
Kane said Progressive Snapshot is just one device of many that are plugging into a car’s onboard diagnostic port, a feature originally designed to help mechanics analyze vehicle problems.
“It’s really the tip of a much bigger iceberg,” Kane explained. “There are going to be a lot of components and products that we’re going to see that affect our cars in negative ways.”
Progressive responds to complaints
Progressive told the I-Team the Snapshot device has been used by more than two and a half million drivers since its launch in 2008 and is compatible with most vehicles 1996 and newer.
The insurance company would not provide the I-Team with updated statistics about Snapshot complaints or claims payouts.
“Complaints around vehicles shutting down are extremely rare,” spokeswoman Amanda Lupica said. “And in our experience, there have been no causes in which the device was found to be the cause of a vehicle shutdown.”
When asked if the company has investigated the details of the complaints, Lupica added: “Progressive continually tests and refines its devices to ensure customer safety and we are confident in the performance of our Snapshot device.”
Other insurance company recalls similar device
The I-Team discovered a smaller company, American Family Insurance, recalled its device after receiving several complaints about cars suddenly shutting down.
The program, “MySafetyValet,” was suspended in July 2014 and about 7,900 customers returned the devices, according to spokesman Ken Muth.
“There were no accidents connected to this issue, and we wanted to keep it that way,” Muth said.
American Family Insurance plans to re-introduce the program later this year with a different device and said it uses a different vendor than Progressive.
Driver reimbursed, but Progressive does not admit fault
Since removing the Snapshot device, Manning said he hasn’t experienced any other car problems.
After filing a claim with Progressive, the Great Barrington driver eventually received reimbursement for $600 in repair costs.
However, the company did not admit the device caused the issues behind the wheel. It also declined to send Manning another Snapshot to see if the results were any different.
“We did not find evidence to support the Snapshot device directly caused or contributed to the issues you raised,” a customer service representative wrote Manning via email. “Nevertheless, we paid for the diagnostic work on your vehicle, not because we were admitting fault, but as a courtesy to you so you would not have to bear the expense.”
Manning believes the device should be pulled before another driver is put at risk.
“I would hate to see somebody hurt or property damaged because of the device stalling their car,” he said. “What scares me the most is somebody gets killed.”