Harnessing Science, Tech and Innovation to Combat Distracted Driving

Distracted Driving Brief


Are you distracted by your phone while driving? According to a recent survey conducted by Travelers Institute in Philadelphia, 3 out of 4 people said “yes”. The result? Distracted driving as the cause of fatal crashes is increasing at higher rate despite widespread bans and public awareness campaigns.

Researchers, insurers, techies, and those impacted from distracted driving are tackling this issue from many angles. One angle is viewing this problem through the lens of “behavioral economics.” This perspective assumes that human drivers will predictably engage in phone use while driving even though they know it’s dangerous and illegal. Using smartphone technology to intervene on the key unconscious biases that lead to this irrational behavior, these groups think there is significant opportunity “nudge” drivers away from distracted driving. Researchers like Dr. Kit Delgado are studying the impact of these strategies – things like activating the “do not disturb while driving” functionality already available on smartphones that automatically reduce distracting driving by blocking incoming notifications while driving.

On December 11th, 2018 the Penn Injury Science Center (PISC) of the University of Pennsylvania hosted a Distracted Driving Conference led by Kit Delgado MD, a Senior Scholar at PISC and Director of the Behavioral Science & Analytics for Injury Reduction (BeSAFIR) lab and sponsored by the Travelers Institute. Other collaborating groups co-hosting the event included Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, and Penn Medicine.

The event, “Harnessing Science, Tech and Innovation to Combat Distracted Driving” #EverySecondMatters, packed the house in Houston Hall’s Class of 1949 auditorium with over 140 attendees. Members of the crowd included auto insurers and payers, academics, students, practitioners, and even those whom have lost loved ones due to distracted driving.

Alan Schnitzer, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Travelers Companies, Inc., opened the discussion with staggering statistics regarding the growing trend of lives lost from distracted driving. He introduced the new series, “Unfinished Stories” which beautifully narrates the lives of those cut short by distracted driving. The debuted vignette featured Philip LaVallee, an aspiring high school track star who – in the animated series – goes on to participate in the Olympics.

Though the room went dark and stirred emotions, it was followed by enthusiastic presentations of leaders in the field working in innovative ways to combat what we now call an epidemic of distracted driving – contributing to more than lives lost in 3,477 in 2015, a trend that has jumped 8.8% from 2014.

Dr. Kit Delgado started the presentations framing the problem with additional statistics, discussing reasons why current laws / education haven’t been effective, and highlighting behavioral insights into why this is hard behavior to change. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what it is, whether it’s sending a text or checking something — anything that’s either looking at your phone and taking your eyes off the road for more than two seconds increases the risk of a crash by fivefold, which is in that moment more than the risk of being drunk," Delgado said.

Michael Klein, Executive Vice President and President, Personal Insurance, and Head of Enterprise Business Intelligence & Analytics, Travelers further outlined the problem from an insurers’ perspective, including views from the industry and levers that are available to combat the statistics and help save lives. “As we get into the conversation about behavior modification,” Klein says, “it’s important to note that, beyond the driver, there are several groups that might also be involved – employers, for one, but also other roadway users, like pedestrians and cyclists.” Klein honed in on employers and reviewed the recent 2018 Travelers Risk Index that revealed reasons for responding to work-related communications while driving:

  • 46% need to always be available

  • 29% fear I will miss something important

  • 23% unable to mentally shut off work

  • 20% boss will be upset if I do not answer

  • 13% drive time is when I get a lot of work done

The final presentation came from Rafi Finegold, Vice President, Loyalty & Behavior, TrueMotion, who described what technology and telematics are possible today to curb current trends, helped quantify distracted driving, and how they support insurers, behavioral economists, academics and others working in this space. Finegold gave us a good look at where the phone technology stands. He passionately reviewed TrueMotion, a platform that partners with auto insurers and third party app developers using smartphone sensor technology to better predict which drivers will get into crashes. Finegold reviewed innovative features such as capturing how the phone is being used (i.e, in hand, lap, mount, cup holder, etc.) and developed a driver scoring system that delivers a driver “risk profile”.

A panel discussion was the final feature, moderated by Joan Woodward, Executive Vice President, Public Policy and President, Travelers Institute and which included all speakers as well as Dr. Katherine Milkman, PhD, Professor of Operations, Information & Decisions at The Wharton School. “We’ve had distracted driving for a long time, it’s just technology has really exacerbated the amount of collisions we’ve seen," Woodward said. "It has become an even more pressing problem for our society. We think we’re invincible with technology because we’re so good at it when we’re sitting at home.”

Dr. Katy Milkman added insights around big data and field experiences to document ways in which individuals deviate from making optimal choices. “Zooming out from roadway safety for a moment, I want to discuss behavior change generally,” Milkman said, “using our phones is sometimes compared to an addiction.” Dr. Milkman proceeded to acknowledge that changing behaviors is a tough feat, and we have to think outside of the box if we are going to change them. Milkman shared some insights from behavioral science that suggest promising opportunities for reducing cellphone use while driving. This included the importance of leveraging default options, providing reminders to adopt safer behaviors as close as possible to when the behavior will be performed, and thinking about ways to “tempt” drivers to stay off their phones through rewards and gamification.

Woodward wrapped up the panel by asking, “If you take the body of research on behavior modification at it stands today, what do you think is the most promising, actionable takeaway for combating distracted driving?” The panelists responded:

  • Setting existing smartphone phone settings to automatically limit notifications and send text-message auto-replies when driving , such as Apple’s Do Not Disturb While Driving (see resources on how to here and here)

  • Advocating for smartphone manufacturers to make these automated settings the factory default

  • Programming navigation and music applications prior to driving

  • Encouraging the adoption of usage-based auto insurance programs that promote reductions in distracted driving through feedback, discounts, and incentives

  • Considering approaches outside of behavior modification, including increasing the adoption of vehicle safety technology such as automated-breaking

The event closed with Dr. Kevin Volpp, Director, Penn Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics (CHIBE) and Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Medical Ethics and Policy, Perelman School of Medicine; Professor, Health Care Management, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Volpp left us optimistic about testing effective solutions, the growth of technology platforms that give feedback in real time, and the importance of corporate-academic partnerships in identifying key questions to prevent injuries.

“This conference was a true win for PISC and others involved,” says Dr. Douglas Wiebe of the Penn Injury Science Center. “It brought a unique perspective to the conversation around distracted driving, and showed how the intersection of industry, academia, and community can work together to solve problems.”

The event was widely covered by the media:

  • Philadelphia Inquirer, Seeking new ways to combat distracted driving, as survey shows 75 percent of locals use phone in car

  • FOX 29 Philadelphia, Study: 91% of millennials driving around Philadelphia-area are driving distracted

  • FOX 8 Cleveland, Survey: 91% of millennials use mobile device while driving

  • CBS Philly, UPenn hosts ‘how to stop distracted driving’ event

  • PropertyCasualty360, Survey finds half of Philly drivers read texts and emails while driving