Dealing with dangers of digital distraction explored by Eric Volkman.

2016 was a deadly year to be on the road in the US – according to provisional estimates from the National Safety Council, there were 40,200 traffic fatalities in the country. That was a 6% increase from the previous year, the sharpest year-over-year increase since 1996 and the first time since 2007 that the number exceeded 40,000.

As with any such statistic, we can’t draw out one single culprit for the increase. Some of the 2016 rise is attributable to factors like lower petrol prices, which meant more road-hours for vehicles on American roads as well as for roads worldwide.

Yet, distracted driving is a big culprit. In 2015, a year that saw 38,300 deaths on the road, nearly 3,500 traced the cause directly to what the US government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Association defines as ‘any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo, entertainment or navigation system’.

Note the emphasis on technology. The smartphone, of course, is one of the key sources of distraction in cars today. Even a simple act involving the device, such as reading a text or answering a call, can take a driver’s eyes off the road for several precious seconds and cause an accident. Despite warnings and scary public-service videos highlighting that risk, an astounding number of American drivers – nearly 70% of a group of motorists aged 18 to 64 surveyed by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention – recently admitted that had talked on their phone while at the wheel within the one month before being surveyed.

“I'm loath to say it's an epidemic because that sounds so strong,” Carroll Lachnit, an editor at auto research specialist Edmunds.com, said in an interview with National Public Radio. “But when you have a phone in the car, the temptation to use it can be pretty overwhelming.”

Said NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind in a separate NPR interview: “The more and more technology that we get offers tremendous value to potentially help save [auto occupant] lives but there’s also the potential to bring more things into the car that could distract us, as well.”

The recent increase in death and damage on the roads naturally means higher pay-outs from insurers, costs which as always have been passed on to customers. From 2010 to 2015, the average written premium on an auto insurance policy in the US rose from $167 (£130) per individual to nearly $200 (£155) – an increase of almost 20%. According to data compiled by Money magazine, insurance providers in Massachusetts were planning on increasing premiums by 3% to 6% this year, while those in North Carolina were seeking an average hike of almost 14%.

So, both insurers and drivers – and society at large, come to think of it – have a vested interest in reducing distracted behaviour as much as possible. It’s tough to stamp out some of its classic iterations – if your child cries sharply in her car seat, you’ll turn around to determine the problem but some of the newer forms can theoretically be neutralised with complimentary technology.

Several mobile apps exist that attack the smartphone problem at the root by blocking key functionalities such as text messaging and incoming calls. One prominent example of this is the DriveMode app from telecoms giant AT&T. When inside a moving vehicle, the app shuts down not only the two aforementioned sources of distraction but also blocks access to games and social media apps – no more posting Facebook statuses on the go. For other apps that assist with the actual task of piloting the car, DriveMode allows for limited access to certain types of programs such as GPS navigation and music playback.

A stronger incentive for driving well, however, might be in solutions that go a step further. TrueMotion, an ambitious US app-builder that describes its niche as ‘insurtech’ has built a set of apps that use a phone’s sensors to gauge a driver’s actions. The company’s Family app logs distracted behaviours (including GPS referencing) and instances of aggressive driving, combining all into a ‘distracted driving score’ at the end of the journey. This ranges from 0 to 100, with the latter being a perfect, distraction-free score. The app is designed to be used by every driver in a family; presumably, one or both parents monitor the performance(s) of their offspring. Other apps, such as TrueMotion’s Mojo or SafeDrive from the eponymous young company based in Amsterdam, provide further incentive by offering drivers the chance to win actual, real-world rewards.

“We found out that we can actually change peoples' behavior,” said TrueMotion co-founder and chief technical officer Brad Cordova in an interview with Cars.com. “We did a study with tens of thousands of people and concluded that, with statistical certainty, we can make people better drivers.”

This type of anti-distraction technology has an obvious use in the insurance sphere. Detailed data about driver behaviour is crucial to risk assessment/management and pricing for UBI solutions. In fact, TrueMotion, formerly known as Censio, began its life as a provider of such solutions to insurers, winning a contest in 2015 to do so for big US firm Progressive – the resulting app is called Snapshot. Since then, TrueMotion has won several other customers such as powerful insurance conglomerate MetLife, which uses the company’s technology for its UBI app My Journey.

Such developments bode well for the future of distraction avoidance but we must bear in mind that technology isn’t necessarily the cure-all for today’s attention-stealers. A study published in early 2016 by America’s Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gauged the effectiveness of forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking – a pair of notable ADAS functionalities – in the reduction of front-to-rear crashes, and resulting injuries. The FCW/AEB combination was a good one, cutting rates of rear-end incidents that caused human damage by over 40%. However, said the study, ‘reductions with FCW alone were not statistically significant’.

That goes to show that, while the latest technological solutions can go a long way in mitigating driver distractions, not all are created equal. It will take time to judge which ones in particular, and in what combination, can best serve the purpose. Even then, distracted operation will never completely be eliminated. Still, it’s promising that even at this early stage on the road to autonomy, we’ve already come up with several effective means of addressing the problem.

[Ins.Volkman.2017.05.15]

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