Talking Michigan Transportation

Bans on hand-held phone use by drivers: Do they work?

May 17, 2023 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 5 Episode 142
Bans on hand-held phone use by drivers: Do they work?
Talking Michigan Transportation
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Talking Michigan Transportation
Bans on hand-held phone use by drivers: Do they work?
May 17, 2023 Season 5 Episode 142
Michigan Department of Transportation

Michigan is poised to become the 26th state to implement a ban on the use of hand-held phones while driving. The new laws, passed as House bills 4250, 4251 and 4252, are headed to Gov. Whitmer’s desk for her signature and are expected to take effect on June 30. 

This follows adoption of similar legislation in Ohio in April. An early analysis of data tracking the use of hand-held mobile devices in vehicles indicates distracted driving may have dropped as much as 9 percent during the first weeks of implementation there. 

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, Ryan McMahon, senior vice president for strategy at Cambridge Mobile Telematics, explains how his firm gathers the data and why it’s important. 

McMahon said the media coverage and attention to the legislation in Ohio and other states with similar laws contributes to the reduction in distracted driving crashes, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says accounted for more than 3,500 crash deaths in 2021.

Show Notes Transcript

Michigan is poised to become the 26th state to implement a ban on the use of hand-held phones while driving. The new laws, passed as House bills 4250, 4251 and 4252, are headed to Gov. Whitmer’s desk for her signature and are expected to take effect on June 30. 

This follows adoption of similar legislation in Ohio in April. An early analysis of data tracking the use of hand-held mobile devices in vehicles indicates distracted driving may have dropped as much as 9 percent during the first weeks of implementation there. 

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, Ryan McMahon, senior vice president for strategy at Cambridge Mobile Telematics, explains how his firm gathers the data and why it’s important. 

McMahon said the media coverage and attention to the legislation in Ohio and other states with similar laws contributes to the reduction in distracted driving crashes, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says accounted for more than 3,500 crash deaths in 2021.

Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson. It is May 17th, 2023. Michigan is about to join several states across the country in implementing a ban on the use of handheld phones while driving. The bills made it out of the legislature just last week, and Governor Whitmer plans to sign them soon. This follows passage of similar laws in nearby Ohio in recent months, and data indicates those laws have already made a dent in distracted driving there, something National Safety officials said cost more than 3500 lives in 2021. To talk about the data that illustrates reduction in handheld phone use since the law passed in Ohio is Ryan McMahon, senior vice president for strategy at Cambridge Mobile Telematics(CMT). So again, as promised, I'm with Ryan McMahon, who is a Senior Vice President of Strategy for Cambridge Mobile Telematics. Ryan, thank you for taking time to be here and talk a little bit about your firm and what you do and why you do it. 

Ryan McMahon: Thank you, Jeff. Thank you for having me and appreciate the opportunity to represent CMT or Cambridge Mobile Telematics. We're a technology company that was founded for research at MIT and our work initially was on measuring road surface conditions through sensors that were put into trunks of taxi cabs and over time when more and more sensors really came onto the marketplace and when we think about sensors, we're talking about the initial flip phones, the Motorola razor phones, those type of initial use cases allowed us to then start to measure more broadly across a number of different points. Today our technology is used by twenty-one of the top twenty-five insurance carriers to measure driving behavior. We measure behavior by assessing risk from looking at sensors like accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, barometer, and we are able to measure how fast the driver is driving, how aggressively they start and stop. And probably most importantly for this conversation, we can assess when a driver is engaged in handheld phone use or interacting with the screen while driving as well. So, our technology is used to assess risk to set insurance prices, we actually are being used today to assess about $4 billion of premium discounts back to consumers today that can demonstrate their safety by enrolling in a telematics program from most major, most leading insurance companies have these programs today and right now we measure roughly nine to ten million drivers each month that are engaged in these programs that are all optional, all opt in that these individuals have an option to have their insurance priced from a methodology that is based on their individual risk, not their aggregate risk or not the number of tickets they've gotten in the past. 

Cranson: So, I'm glad you held that disclaimer about it being optional, because I know that the discussions of these things trip every civil libertarian trigger and privacy concerns. You're not doing this necessarily to follow anybody in particular, but can you explain if they do opt in, is it still publicly available data for the FCC, or is it because they have to opt in that you're able to gather the data?

McMahon: So, we do not sell data, we do not share data with any other parties. We make technology that our customers and our customers being in this case the insurance industry, but we also work with organizations like AARP has a safe driving program. We work with companies like ADT that have a crash detection program. That can detect a crash in real time and send help to individuals. And in each one of those cases, the technology is created and used right where the consumer is enrolling so that data is not made available for sale or for share for any other purpose. We don't generate revenue from advertising and privacy is of the utmost importance to us as an organization. We, unlike a lot of other maybe data organizations which CMT is not, our revenue is generated from the sale of our technology and being able to use the technology to build elements like the prediction of an individual driver for them to get into a crash. We have the ability to detect that crash in real time and then send emergency help, but the data is never used for any other purpose that the consumer did not opt in for. 

Cranson: So, let's talk about, you know, what you found as I mentioned in the introduction, Michigan is poised to become, I guess what would be the 27th state to have some kind of distracted driving bill, a ban on handheld telephone use, but most recently Ohio adopted a law very similarly and already we found like a 9% reduction in distraction and that's just after one month that seems to, you know, spell good things in the future. Can you talk about that? 

McMahon: Yeah, it's really interesting. We've studied this in a number of states going back to 2018 and over that work we see a very consistent pattern that has come to fruition where there's a gap between an individual’s awareness of the risk of this issue and how commonplace it is. Just today as we record this conversation, I'm actually in Europe, and just while I'm driving here or riding in the passenger seat, I'm seeing drivers use their phone while driving in a congested city. And these problems, unfortunately, are pervasive. To the point where it just becomes part of normal driving for so many people. What's happened is when these laws go into effect, there's conversation about the issue, there's conversation about the level of risk. There is an increased enforcement increase, awareness that this issue is fundamentally detrimental to a number of different safety factors when we come to our ability to get to where we want to go safely. And unfortunately if you look at what's happened and road safety trend the last four or five years and certainly accelerated around COVID, the amount of distracted driving that we have seen overall is up in some cases 30%. The amount of time that somebody is spending interacting with their phone while driving in this case more than ten miles an hour is up 30% in some cases. So, what does has that done overall? Well, we also know that we're facing a record number of road fatalities that have occurred over that same period of time. And these two numbers don't usually get correlated together because there's really no information on distracted driving as a factor into a crash in so many cases. It's just a hard element to detect. So, what we've seen is when these laws are passed, it's not only the fact that the laws passed, but it's also the fact that there's more conversation about the issue, there's more media attention to the issue. And in every single case and especially in the case of Ohio, what we've seen is the first week that that law goes into effect, there's a tremendous amount of media attention and we also see a reduction that leads directly to less crashes, because we know which behaviors lead to crashes because we measure both the behavior of the individual driver and then the outcome that occurs at the same point. So, we have the ability to predict the likelihood of a crash or the likelihood that we reduce crashes from that engagement. So, what happens in these cases, and what I'm very excited about for Michigan is we are going to see a reduction in that behavior if it follows the national trend. The only time that that has not happened by the way is in the case of Massachusetts, which their law went to effect in February, late February, early March 2020. And of course, we're all aware of what happened then. When all the media attention was placed on the public health emergency of COVID, so what happened is that in Massachusetts there was actually no change. But in every other state there's a reduction in behavior and we've seen this happen each week in Ohio so far and we'll keep measuring it and we'll do the same in Michigan. 

Cranson: Yeah, that really does illustrate your point, I guess about media attention and awareness if Massachusetts didn't see a similar reduction because it coincided with the beginning of the pandemic. Talk about this a little bit if you can; and I know this might be outside of CMT's, you know, realm because it gets into behavior and psychology, but when you talk about what we saw with the pandemic, the higher speeds, makes sense to a degree because there were fewer people on the road, you know, less traffic, people can drive faster. But how do you explain more distracted driving and people not wearing their seat belts and some of these other, you know, dangerous behaviors that we saw just really spike?

McMahon: I can speak a little bit to what we've seen with the distracted driving not with seat belts though. So there’s these two elements that may or may not be connected but certainly with phones more of our life has gone to a digital element and there is more, there are more activities that we do on daily basis that happen on our phones, there's more availability of technology that's accessible directly through a smartphone. And as a result of that there's a blend between the time where an individual is doing activities that they are driving and also that are engaged in daily life. And that blend may have accelerated even faster during COVID. And one of the things I want to be clear on here for the audience Jeff, is we do not measure or detect what individual action somebody is doing on the phone. We can see the sensors, we can see the movement of the accelerometer of the gyroscope, we can tell if the call is taken via Bluetooth or not. But, fundamentally what an individual is doing with them with their phone, that is private to them. So we don't know exactly which apps individuals are using or if they're spending more time on other activities, but the fundamental truth that we've seen, and it's quite amazing, is it was almost the same days that lockdowns went into effect, that schools shut down, that we started to see this very big spike in distracted driving minutes per drive hour. And unfortunately, we have not really seen that behavior return back to below pre-COVID levels in any state. So, when we think about the importance of enacting laws and then attention to this issue long term. If we look at Ohio, you're looking at a state that is reducing distracted driving minutes per drive hour post the enacting and post the signature of their hands-free law and that's the national average that’s increasing. So, it’s almost like the tide is coming in on distracted driving all over the place in any state that is reducing that behavior right now is making progress against really what is an epidemic that has no other real signs of slowing down.

Cranson: No, it's true. All the numbers aren't in for 2022 yet, but anecdotally, the speeds that skyrocketed in 2020 are still out there. People are driving faster after making gains in the years preceding the pandemic and crash deaths in Michigan and other states. You know those numbers are going in the wrong direction for all the reasons that you cite. I often wonder, you know, just like we seem to find better ways to protect ourselves in the battlefield, better arm with their radar, all kinds of better ways to limit the damage then we come up with better bombs and it seems the same way when it comes to technology and driving. The more we've done to make cars safer with, you know, lane assist and adaptive cruise control and cameras and sensors we've come up with more ways to distract ourselves as we drive. So, until we get to, you know, truly automated vehicles and take the human element out of it, I think the kind of work you're doing is very important. Why do you think it's still a problem in some states? Why, what's the pushback? And I mean why isn't this a no brainer to be a nationwide ban on handheld use?

McMahon: I think it is no-brainer. I think it's a no-brainer for individuals when they're behind the wheel. Also to be aware that the level of safety from other drivers that they have come to expect over the course of the road driving has degraded. What that means is the margin for error is less because if you’re distracted and the other driver is distracted now all of a sudden you’re in an environment that’s just simply more dangerous. So, I think that the first part of this conversation is we have to be aware as drivers that the road simply has more risk than it did before. And one of the things that is apparent in our data is that roughly a third of all the crashes that we detect had the drivers phone in their hand a minute prior to up to a minute prior to the crash. So, that is unfortunately just the reality of our driving environment today. I think individuals in each State has their own components of where they're paying attention to laws and how those laws make sense. I think fundamentally though, one of the challenges has been, if you go and look at the official data of what behaviors are leading causes of crashes with causes of severe injuries and fatalities, distracted driving behavior is usually not well represented in that data set, but we know it's just this under reported methodologies that are available to individuals to asses this. So, fundamentally if you are in a position to put resources, time energy and laws towards one behavior or another that's going to save lives. It's going to make roads safer. The fundamental and core data right now that's available to you as a road safety planner that's published, the official statistics are just undercounting the level of prevelances of this behavior. So, I think one of the elements that we try to do at CMT is to take the curtain a little bit away to unveil the truth behind the issue and we published a report, we published a report for the last four years on distracted driving and this last version was 60 pages. It was just published maybe three or four weeks ago and it is quite comprehensive, and our hope is that the more that individuals that are in a position to change the trajectory of road safety understand that this is a major issue and there's no real - We should not feel comforted in the lack of numbers behind the number of distracted driving fatalities because those numbers are not representative of the true level of risk on the road. 

Cranson: Well yeah, even before we had cell phones and a myriad of ways to distract ourselves as we do now, distracted driving was under reported and undetected and it’s been a factor since human beings started driving.

McMahon: And that’s no fault to the individuals who are charged with investigating these crashes or with taking resources and applying it, because there's just, we can only report on what we measure right? And the things that are easy to measure are those that are accessible to us, you can assess speed, you can look at, you can look at blood alcohol level. You can look at a number of different factors that are measured today and I think what's interesting about our company we have almost opened the aperture of risk knowledge but now know with a much greater level of certainty of which behaviors are present and prevalent prior to a crash. So, the more that that technology is used and the more that it's applied in the insurance industry is a great example but because they're putting their financial dollars behind it in a direct way and they're competing against other insurance companies. So, there's this desire to offer the lowest price possible to compete in a market segment while also being able to enter that they have enough dollars to pay the claims. So, it creates a really interesting environment and in a great place to grow our technology because there's a very big incentive for them to really identify and know what attributes crashes and the more that we can open the aperture to understand what elements those are the better off in the position they are to the behavior and we're seeing that play out in real time.

Cranson: Yeah I know it's great if we can base our policy making on facts and data. 

We will continue the conversation right after a quick break. 

MDOT Message: *Ding* You looked. *Ding* You looked again. Put the phone down and pay attention to when you drive so you arrive alive. Remember, don't drive distracted. 


Cranson: Talk about where you're at. You're in Croatia now doing some work over there. How are other countries doing on this scale? You talked a little bit about what you're seeing as you drive around there, but it is anybody ahead of the United States when it comes to dealing with distracted driving and trying to combat this cause of thousands of deaths a year?

McMahon: Europe does have lower prevalence of distracted driving overall and it is interesting to see the difference between various countries and we are active right now. I believe the number is twenty-one countries around the globe with fairly large presence in places like the United Kingdom and Germany and Japan, Australia, South Africa and the prevalence of distracted driving behavior is lower in in Europe than the US, and I don't have an exact reason for that. The fines are different, the structure is different, they've had laws in place for longer periods of time, but you know our user base is much larger in the US so that also could be that we're just capturing a different segment of the market in, in Europe that is not as wide as it is in the US as it is in our customer base is I would say a little bit more tenured with their use of the technology and it is incorporated. Across a larger number of individuals. 

Cranson: I guess I don't know how insurance rates compared in other countries. You would think insurance companies, you think they have the same incentives to look into this sort of thing and fund this kind of research, but I guess I just don't know. Do you do you have any sense of that? 

McMahon: We could geek out on insurance ecosystems for hours, Jeff but I’ll tell you what’s interesting is every country is different, the liability systems are different. The methodologies of spreading risk the methodologies of setting pricing every country around the globe is really unique and, in the US, it actually is pretty unique too because each State sets their own policies of how insurance is priced and distributed and there's a lot of similarities between states, but there's also enough difference to look in and almost look at natural experiments between different markets and how they've reacted. And I think one of the things that's really fascinating in this area is that this connection between insurance and public health and road safety is coming more to light because there's more knowledge of what causes crashes because of the fact that there's investment for, you know, over a decade, over probably two decades in this case from the insurance industry putting time and effort to try to understand this element. Before the ability to measure from an individual driver was all aggregate statistics and data of trying to determine what factors caused losses and claims. And really the whole industry shifted because they now have the ability to understand what an individual drivers impact on that loss is and of course that's the same thing that we look at from a public health standpoint too, from a road safety standpoint. So, I am very optimistic about the future because there is more and more work that's being put into this and I know that the data leads to informed policies and better educational programs, more targeted efforts on enforcement to build in a better solution that encompasses more of what we knew before. And from road safety perspective trying to get someone to put a seatbelt on is a very different challenge than trying to get an individual to avoid the massive temptation to open their phone while they drive. Because it's not just a onetime activity, it's your phone, you know is close to addictive, especially for some people. So, anything that we can do to highlight the dangers #1 and #2 put in more attention to the issue and then number 3 our technology specifically gives people individual feedback. It's like a mirror or scale that they get their own personal report card, and they get to see after every trip how safe they were, and they can compare themselves to other individuals. So, over time when people review those trips and they look at their safety, they do reduce the amount of risk behavior that they are engaged in, and we know that leads to less crashes. So, we're really optimistic and it makes it really easy to come into work every day. 

Cranson: Yeah. No, I think you're absolutely right. Especially about the awareness, the laws, using data to drive those things and make those decisions and get people talking. Especially kids, because, you know, I know when you talk about how addictive the phone can be. I actually had my daughter, when she was in high school interview some friends to put together, something that's part of a presentation I was making for some of my peers around the country and her friends were very honest about saying that a message on a billboard or you know, on a DMS as they drive down the road that says “don't text and drive” probably isn't going to influence their behavior. So, it does take some carrot and stick incentives like you're talking about, and I think that's what can make a dent.

McMahon: We've seen really good results specifically targeted at newly licensed drivers. One program that I think is worth highlighting is the Oklahoma challenge. Someone named Linda Tyrrell was just honored by NHTSA at Lifesavers last year. The Oklahoma challenge had been an educational program going back years and they added telematics to this to basically help drivers and newly licensed drivers understand their own individual risk as they are going through. It’s a fun competition and they competed with other schools and they also got prizes as well. And what we saw from this and this is what we see on a regular basis is the bottom 25% of the drivers that are most at risk for crashes. Those drivers are almost universally improved by 50%. We've seen this, we’ve done competitions in Boston and San Antonio, Los Angeles and Seattle and that work has been published by the Federal Highway Administration and cited as a success story on the road to zero fatalities and in that case as well, we see that they have expressed are those drivers that have the biggest change. So, what happens is, as individuals, they don't actually understand there's really no measure of how safe you are as a driver. They overestimate their safety and how good of driver somebody is the challenge. It's a big challenge. So, we think that by showing drivers just simply where they rank versus other individuals and then allowing them to see this information directly and then it being transparent to them so they have the understanding of what elements that they can change that will reduce their risk and if there's an incentive tied to that as well, it creates a huge value. So right now, the insurance industry is spending billions of dollars directed at road safety. We know these kinds of concepts work and it especially works in individuals who are the most likely to crash. 

Cranson: Yeah it’s absolutely true about our own perceptions of ourselves as drivers. I mean that shows up in studies and surveys about automated vehicles and people thinking that you know, you know I'm a good driver but nobody else is right? So that's what you're getting at. 

McMahon: Yeah that social, the leaderboards are really interesting concept and in some cases. We've done you know the people that drive think about this like the last. The last quarter mile or mile to where you live you know and if we showed drivers that on that last quarter mile that their distraction is 500% more than anyone else on that on those roads. Those are roads where their friends and family live where you know perhaps their kids are riding their bikes and we can show them that information right and that level of specificity, the ability to put this information in a way that people can understand it is so critically important. It's not a black box. This data is not being siphoned off where somebody doesn't know about it. This data is available to the individual. That individual then can see themselves in a way that they really haven’t before. The only real feedback that people get from driving is from law enforcement from other individuals in other cars sometimes with creative hand signals and the occasional passenger. So, you know this is the one thing that people can control themselves and this is what we're excited about. 

Cranson: Yeah. No, it's important work and I'm glad that we're making strides in the right direction. Thank you very much Ryan, for taking time out of your busy travel schedule to talk about this. I’m excited for Governor Whitmer signing the bill here and checking back maybe in a in a few months to see you know what kind of a difference it's made in Michigan.

McMahon: We’ll publish the data and we'll make sure that you guys have a have a look at it and what I'll tell you is the week after we published the and the prevalence of distracted driving went down again. Because that in itself was able to create more media attention to the issue, which you know, kind of is a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way. Because now all of a sudden, a law passes, you know, its great news, we get discussions about it, but then you know, people's behaviors can tend to go back. So, it's so much better if we can let everybody know where the impact is and how that's trending because we know that these behaviors will take or save lives and our goal is to make the world's roads and drivers safer and we are so excited to be able to applaud Michigan in your efforts here.

Cranson: No that's the goal obviously it's the Michigan Department of Transportation that. Traffic and safety engineers and planners and people who design roads, I mean safety is obviously the priority for everything they do, and they take it very personally. So yeah, these kinds of things I think everybody applauds and you mentioned cyclists earlier and I can tell you some of the biggest supporters of this were the Michigan League of Bicyclists who are really excited about having this law on the books. So, thanks again, Ryan. 

McMahon: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Thank you for your efforts, Jeff, and please let us know how we can help. 

Cranson: I’d like to thank you once more for tuning in to talking Michigan transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple Podcasts or bus route. I also want to acknowledge the talented people who help make this a reality each week starting with Randy Debler who skillfully edits the audio, Jesse Ball who proves the content, Courtney Bates who posts the podcast of various platforms, and Jacke Salinas who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.