Travelers Property Casualty became the first major insurance company to allow U.S. consumers to purchase automobile insurance directly over the Internet, initially offering the service in Alabama.

So far, insurance buyers have been able to use the Internet mostly to obtain quotes and the names of area insurance agents from whom they could purchase a policy.Travelers' new product, available immediately to Alabama customers on Intuit Inc.'s Quicken InsureMarket Web site, will allow them to complete the transaction over the Internet and obtain coverage beginning at midnight on the following business day. To close the deal, the customers will have to provide a credit card number.

"Self-service-oriented consumers who want to shop, obtain quotes and arrange coverage online will have that capability," said Hector Maury, a vice president at Travelers Property Casualty.

Travelers said Thursday it expects to offer the purchasing option in all 50 states by year-end. So far, electronic signatures, which are necessary to process a transaction online, are permitted in only 12 states.

Other companies are expected to offer online purchase through InsureMarket, which currently has quotes available from 14 different insurers.

InsureMarket's only rival as an online insurance marketplace is InsWeb Corp. in San Mateo, Calif., which is a joint venture of 12 insurance companies including Travelers.