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InsWeb drives insurance online

California drivers can now get insurance rate quotes online through InsWeb's site.

California drivers can now get insurance rate quotes online from the InsWeb site, an insurance mall that is taking an increasingly consumer-oriented bent.

Nationwide Insurance, which markets its policies through InsWeb, has been quoting rates to California-based Web surfers for about a week, said InsWeb president Darrell Ticehurst. Workmen's Auto Insurance will soon join the system, too. Nationwide and Workmen's already quote rates online for Utah residents.

Drivers in 17 other states also can get quotes by email or telephone from the InsWeb site, and Ticehurst expects three other California carriers to come online shortly. 20th Century Industries currently offers offline quotes on InsWeb. Nationwide has ambitious plans to offer online auto quotes in 22 states, he added.

While quotes are available, consumers still must buy the policy offline, as the various insurance companies must check their driving records before determining for which policy they are eligible.

InsWeb's consumer focus stems in part from a November alliance with Insurance Information Exchange (IIX), a major technology services firm owned by a consortium of ten top-tier insurers. InsWeb will refer property-casualty agents to IIX, which will take over most of InsWeb's function as a center for insurance agents, freeing InsWeb to focus on insurance buyers.

IIX owns the AMS Rating service, which evaluates applicants and determines how risky they are to insure; InsWeb will tap that rating system.

"We didn't expect the insurance industry to move so fast to the Net," Ticehurst said of his company's strategic shift. "We are experts on consumers."

The consumer focus will heighten InsWeb's competition with personal software giant Intuit, which sells insurance from the InsureMarket area of its consumer-oriented Quicken Financial Network Web site.

QFN, designed as a one-stop location for an individual's financial needs, acts as a broker, offering insurance policies and taking a commission on sales. By contrast, insurers pay InsWeb a transaction fee that does not depend on the cost of a policy.

Ticehurst said InsWeb wants to work with state insurance regulators to pass on to consumers the cost savings of selling insurance over the Web. He estimated that insurance carriers can save 20 to 30 percent of their selling costs by having consumers fill out applications online.

InsWeb offers short-term health insurance, wedding insurance, term-life insurance, and various other insurance services for individuals and small businesses from its Web site. It also expects to unveil a site redesign in mid-February.