Distracted Devices Huge Problem That Needs Industry Attention

Distracted Devices Huge Problem That Needs Industry Attention

In the interest of serving customers and maximizing profits, insurance companies often support public safety campaigns. I can remember two things vividly from when I was six years old: 1.) The Giants won the 1954 World Series, featuring Willie Mays’ famous back to the infield catch and 2.) I became a Hartford Junior Fire Marshal. To earn that hallowed plastic, red helmet I had to complete a home fire safety survey, with my parents’ assistance. However, not much as been done to curb driving while using distracted devices.

Distracted driving is a national crisis. This June the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a report which stated that distracted driving-related incidents represented about fifteen percent of all crashes in the United States. Contradictorily, the auto industry seems to be competing to see who can equip their latest models with the most social media and latest communication technology. What will happen to auto insurance loss ratios is a matter of conjecture, but something needs to be done to limit access while the auto’s in motion.

Does it behoove the private passenger auto insurance industry to promote distraction-free driving through the rates they charge? Or, should a large auto insurance company (like Hartford) institute a national campaign that awards a “pit crew safety vest” to first-grade students for reminding their parents and older siblings to drive without unnecessary distractions?

The Race to Make Your Car a Social Media Command Center

Peyton Manning is all over television calling “audibles” through his car’s communication devices, while clearly distracted from his primary task of driving.

Honda’s Acord is giving us a good idea what is coming down the road. According to their website you “don’t even have to hassle with your mobile phone”. It invites you to check out restaurant reviews on the go, with a touch screen in the center of the dash.

Cadillac, Ford, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz all have plans on the drawing board.

On-Star will create hotspots to allow you to post to your Facebook wall while driving, or have your Twitter feeds read aloud to you. Mercedes-Benz also claims it will soon allow you to access Facebook, initially in its SLK Roadsters.

Fords Evos concept car allows you to like, share, or check-in while on the go.  Another coming device is Toyota’s Entune, which includes an innovative “friend-finder”.

If you don’t want to wait, there’s a partnership between Automatic and IFTTT that allows almost any car in America to leverage social network data, you can hack your car to post Facebook and Instagram.

A 2012 market study indicates that all of this modernization might meet with market resistance. However as these platforms become more of a reality those opinions may change.

The State of Distracted Driving

Drivers talking on a cell phone, either hands-free or hand-held, have an increased probability of being involved in a collision because of documented, delayed-reaction times. In fact, cell-phone drivers exhibit greater impairment than intoxicated drivers.

A 2012 study indicated that those who use a cell phone while driving “were found to drive faster, change lanes more frequently, spend more time in the left lane, and engage in more instances of hard braking and high acceleration events.”

During 2012, according to the website distraction.gov, 3,328 were killed in distracted driving-related crashes.

A recent AAA Foundation in-car study showed teens are distracted almost twenty-five percent of the time they’re driving.  Texting, emails, and downloading music account for seven percent of the diversions. By my math that would indicate electronic devices are causing teenagers to act worse than inebriated about two percent of the time they’re driving, which is disconcerting.

Despite considerable efforts made to educate and persuade drivers not to text while they drive, the percentage of drivers text messaging went up when comparing 2012 to the prior year. It is a matter of conjecture whether public awareness campaigns are effective.

Most states have passed hands-free requirements, but studies indicate that much of the “distraction” is the conversation, not the handling of the device.

When local law enforcement agencies are diligent about ticketing cell phone usage, there is a corresponding three percent drop in traffic fatalities, while restrictions enforced secondarily make no difference. “Secondary enforcement” means an officer must have another reason to stop a vehicle, like speeding or running a red light, before the officer can cite a driver for texting while driving. Those few remaining states with secondary enforcement laws truly need legislation to revise texting and hand-held phone infractions into a primary offense. Ultimately, however, it is clear to see that texting legislation has only a minimal impact on accident improvement because consumers continue to text regardless of their state’s laws.

What’s Being Done to Curb Distracted Driving

Aside from state and local government, technology companies are helping to promote safe driving as well. For those who believe in positive reinforcement and behavioral conditioning there is DriveScribe. It turns your mobile phone into a safe driving coach. It has prompts and reminders, as well as a “Skinnerian” rewards program.

Apple has created a device to stop drivers from using handheld devices. The device uses a phone’s cameras and motion detectors to determine if the person is driving. If so, then the phone will disable texting and other features. Likewise, your car’s ignition can send a signal to your phone to disable the texting.

AT&T’s Drivemode will automatically respond to texts letting people know that you’re driving. An app called drivesafe.ly by iSpeech will read texts and emails aloud and enables you to give a hands-free oral response.

There are several other applications, which disable texting when you exceed 10 miles per hour.

Of course, there are also devices used by insurance companies to gauge your driving that could be easily adapted to block texting. Perhaps companies could give a premium credit to give customers an incentive to use it.

What Is the Auto Insurance Industry Doing?

Each year, more than eighty percent of drivers cite distraction as a serious problem and a behavior that makes them feel less safe on the road.  Yet eighty percent of men and seventy-three percent of women will answer a phone call while driving. Clearly, they need additional reasons to act in their own best interest.

There are issues of “privacy” and “individual’s rights” that can’t be ignored. However, worried parents would seemingly be ready to adopt an automatic blocking solution, and maybe it’s coming.

The insurance industry isn’t sitting on its hands. American Family Insurance has invested one million dollars in a device that blocks incoming and outgoing texts from the network level, before they even get to the phone. The inventor, a former space entrepreneur who in a previous life made motors for Mars rovers, worked with American Family Insurance support to create a partnership with Sprint to deploy the technology, a first for an American phone carrier. Perhaps this signals a change in attitude of cell phone carriers who have always pushed individual freedoms over safety.

Distracted Driving Conclusions

A similar change of attitude is needed in the auto manufacturing industry. They should be ashamed of any technological changes that increase, rather than decrease, accident likelihood. Social media is wonderful, but it really needs to wait until you get out of your car. I fully realize that social media and technology are drivers of change and pressures are placed on the auto industry to facilitate.

My brother-in-law, who held several patents, and I spent a 1980s afternoon coming up with products that could make us rich.  One device we visualized was an electrical billboard to go in the back window of your car. We were going to make it so that you would have handy phrases pre-loaded into the device so that you could send an “instant message” to the car following you. After laughingly predicting how rich we were going to become, we decided that certain inventions might cause more harm than good, and jettisoned the idea. I’m sure had we created our product it would have sold briskly and would have become the “road rage” poster child.

If only the auto industry had that kind of restraint! But they’re feverishly manufacturing “jet fighter-like cockpits” for our autos that make little fiscal or self-preservation sense.

I maintain hope that insurance companies will adjust their pricing to make these “rolling social media platforms” less attractive to insurance consumers through risk-based higher premiums.

Further, I would hope that other insurance companies will join American Family Insurance, in their efforts to develop a blocking device, and/or offer premium credits for those insureds who have such a device in their vehicle.


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Jim operates an insurance agent network called Insurance Partners, aggregating agents in the Midwest for over 25 years. He was National Agent of the Year for Metropolitan in 1993 and Midwest Agent of the Year for Travelers in 2011. He served as a founding board member of the Surplus Lines Association of Minnesota.

2 comments on “Distracted Devices Huge Problem That Needs Industry Attention

  1. It seems like distracted driving is particularly concerning for minors. Are there any products you would recommend to make sure my kid is not driving distracted?

    • It is not the product so much as the example you set through your own behavior. Texting is more of a problem for youthful drivers, but adults engage in just as lethal forms of distracted driving.

      Don’t kid yourself by restricting your phone conversation, while driving, to hands free. The stats for hands free communication are nearly as bad as those for phone in hand.


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