NEW YORK (AP) _ 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 yearend. So far, electronic signatures, which are necessary to process a transaction online, are permitted in only 12 states.

Travelers Property, a unit of giant financial services company Travelers Group, is the nation's third-largest property casualty insurer in terms of assets, behind Allstate Corp. and and State Farm Mutual.

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.

Seven insurers in California quote auto insurance rates through InsWeb, and three insurers in each of 33 states offer quotes. InsWeb also offers life insurance quotes. But customers cannot yet purchase policies through InsWeb.

Insurance can be bought over the Internet in other countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada. InsureMarket also offers online quotes for life insurance, although purchases of such policies cannot yet be made over the Internet because of policy requirements that may include a medical examination.

Adoption of Internet insurance sales in the United States has been slow because the industry is regulated on a state-by-state basis. The Progressive Corp., an insurance holding company based in Mayfield, Ohio, sells auto insurance over the Internet to drivers in Minnesota.

Travelers' product marks the newest attempt by technology companies like Intuit to become wide Internet conduits for the exchange of information and sale of financial products.

Through Quicken, Intuit has been working for years to burrow deeper into the financial services and payment systems arenas. In September 1996, it sold its electronic bill-paying subsidiary to CheckFree Corp. but retained a 23 percent stake in CheckFree, which provides payment processing and other software services for businesses.

At the time, Intuit said it would modify Quicken to allow computer users to connect directly with financial institutions through the Internet.

The banking linkup has been available for some time, enabling Quicken users to consummate banking transactions through a direct online contact or over the Internet. Intuit added information about insurance with InsureMarket, which it bought from a small group of entrepreneurs and added to its quicken.com Web site in 1996.

In Travelers' pilot, consumers in Alabama may use InsureMarket to receive online price quotes and purchase an auto insurance policy from a Travelers agent. Customers in other states will get price quotes and the names of local agents.

The market case for buying insurance over the Internet is ``absolutely there,'' said Hussein Enan, chairman and chief executive at InsWeb.

``If you look at insurance as just another financial product and look at what people are doing in terms of banking online and buying stocks online, the only reason they aren't buying insurance online is that it's not available.''