On this week’s edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a discussion about why distracted driving initially trended down in Michigan after the state's hands-free law took effect and why those numbers are not dropping as rapidly now.
Ryan McMahon, senior vice president of strategy for Cambridge Mobile Telematics, a Massachusetts-based company with a stated mission to make the world’s roads and drivers safer, talks about the technology employed to determine the degree of distracted driving.
New data released by the company shows that in Michigan, distraction has increased every month since month 3, totaling a 7.6 percent increase. In the same time period, Ohio’s distraction level increased 2.4 percent, three times lower.
McMahon explains how their telematics showed Michigan with a 36 percent reduction in distracted driving around the time the law took effect but some of those gains have been erased, a trend in other states with similar legislation.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says distracted driving accounted for more than 3,500 crash deaths in 2021.
Hello, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson. I've spoken before with officials at Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which is a firm based in Massachusetts that tracks things like the use of digital devices in vehicles, and they have some new data, so I've recorded a conversation with an official there to talk about that and update some of what they're finding since Michigan's hands-free law went into effect on June 30th. I hope you enjoy the conversation. Again, I'm talking today with Ryan McMahon, who is a Senior Vice President of Strategy for Cambridge Mobile Telematics. We've spoken before about the hands-free law and his firm's interest in limiting the use of cellular devices or really, you know, any device anything that distracts you from the road. As we know, distractions are on the rise, even as we try to do more to limit them and try to make driving safer. So, Ryan, thanks for taking time to be here again.Ryan McMahon:
Thank you, Jeff. Great to be back. I appreciate the invitation.Jeff Cranson:
So let's reset a little bit of what your firm does and why I mean, I guess kind of what's in it for you and your firm by tracking these things.Ryan McMahon:
Yeah, good question, Jeff. So our firm, Cambridge Mobile Telematics, the company was started out of research from MIT to measure driving behavior based on, at that time, when we started, was mobile devices, and we've expanded to other data sources IoT, connected car, et cetera. But effectively what we do is we measure driving behavior and that measurement is then used to help articulate the elements of risk that can lead to crashes things like over speeding, hard braking, aggressive cornering, aggressive starting and stopping and also distracted driving in many senses. And we have been at this for over a decade and our mission is to make the world's roads and drivers safer. And companies work with us, like the insurance industry and groups like AARP and Verizon and ADT, to help articulate crash risk, eliminate that crash risk through feedback and also incentives to drivers to help them drive safer, and then, in the case of a crash, we detect that and then send emergency help in real time. So our business is in road safety.Jeff Cranson:
So someone might say, obviously we're never going to make the roads as safe as we'd like them to be, because humans are still humans and make mistakes. But is the goal you know we talk about towards zero deaths, and there's, you know, national vision, zero campaigns and things. You know how do you talk about that, knowing, you know, how do you once be aspirational but realistic about these things?Ryan McMahon:
I admire the highway safety community, folks in the Department of Transportation and highway safety offices around the country for really aggressive goals, either towards zero or at zero or target zero. You know there's the general theme is to try to eliminate something that is very challenging to eliminate and in fact it has proved to be quite the opposite in the last few years, where you have a rise in traffic fatalities and there's been an overall reduction at the top line but an increase in pedestrian fatalities in the latest data set. But our view is not as absolute. Our view is safer, right. So we know that there are behaviors that drivers exhibit that lead to crashes. We know that those behaviors are not inherent in any individual person and in fact our view is there's really no safer unsafe driver, there's just safer unsafe trips. So the same person can get behind the wheel and drive their kids to school and it can be a perfectly safe trip, but that same person could be late for a meeting or a flight and make decisions that are that are totally opposite in other scenarios. So the challenge is ongoing. It's every single trip and it's not a personality trait and our view is to identify the individual risk characteristics that are present when crashes occur and make sure that those behaviors that drivers exhibit, that they understand those. And then our customers provide incentives to them. So the really cool thing is we've seen crashes be reduced by upwards of 25 percent for some of our customers that they individually those customers, it's in their profit and loss. You know every time a crash happens they're paying dollars out, so they're highly incentivized to reduce crashes and really no driver wants to be in a crash. But many times drivers exhibit behaviors that are not necessarily in their best interest long term. So building these behavioral elements and understanding that and being able to bring in incentives that sit on top of that can help reduce crashes. So I don't think this effort, will ever be done.Jeff Cranson:
Right. So it's safe to say that insurance companies are going to stay in business, no matter how well we progress in this area.Ryan McMahon:
Well, I think that if we're successful at CMT, then the premium that a driver pays goes down, because the risk goes down. That only works, though, if the driver is also paying attention to the risk. So, for example, just to give you a preview, we're actually presenting at the Transportation Research Board symposium in January and we're talking about changing driver behavior and, in some of the programs that we have active, those programs are getting drivers to come back into an app to look at their trips and basically almost like putting a mirror up to their behavior. And then that's when drivers change. They don't necessarily just change because they enroll in one of these programs, but if they do, if they do actually pay attention to their trips and start to understand where they're exhibiting risk, then that actually reduces their premium, and actually the insurance company is fine with that, because the insurance company, generally speaking, is really just kind of making a percentage of the overall premium. Their profit margins haven't actually, they've gone opposite. They are losing money significantly over the last few years when you look at what's happened in the rise of fatalities after kind of the brief period of time where nobody was driving in the start of COVID, but the insurance industry, generally speaking is incentivized to reduce crashes, and they're happy to give that incentive along to drivers too.Jeff Cranson:
Well, that's a huge deal. TRB is kind of the Lollapalooza for Transportation Research geeks, so that's I mean you're talking about thousands of people.Ryan McMahon:
That session is being led by a number of our PhD data scientists that have been studying driver behavior at the scale that I just don't think really exists anywhere else. So you know our pool of drivers right now we're measuring about 200,000 drivers every hour and that scale allows us to be able to get insights into behaviors that otherwise really don't necessarily come up when you look at the data from FARs or otherwise. Because the challenges when a crash occurs, we're putting law enforcement in a position to investigate a crash with resources that are looking at the physics that you can observe from the outside in. You can look at the impact point, you can look at the skid marks, you can look at a number of different factors that are visibly present. But when you look at the behaviors that were exhibited in the moments prior to the crash, unless you have a camera or something else, there's really no way to know. And what we've been able to start to do is, as we're measuring these behaviors at large scale, we can see what was present prior to the crash and some, actually some new data in this case is we've started to look at what happens immediately prior to a crash and we know and I talked about this last time 34% of crashes, the drivers holding a phone in their hand a minute prior to the crash occurring. But one of the things that I didn't talk about before was when those crashes occur where the driver holding their phone in their hand distracted driving crashes those crashes happen at a speed that's 40, 40% higher. The physics, the moment of impact is 40% higher than crashes without distracted driving and that is a huge deal and I think that this is honestly the this may be the missing link. That is, the difference between the crashes that go by the wayside, that are property damage only, where a car gets sent to the body shop fixed and comes back, versus the crashes where the driver is sent to the hospital or worse. And we know the speeds that happen at the time of the crash have a big impact on the injuries of those drivers and if that speed increases because the driver's not paying attention, you're effectively lowering the driver's immune system. They have no ability to slow down prior to that impact, to start to take away some of the physics that are going to be imparted on all participants in that crash at that point. So what happens as a result of that is a crash that happens at 35 miles an hour has about a 15% chance of severe injury or death. This is like a head on collision A crash that happens just 10 miles an hour faster, at 45 miles an hour, has the 40% chance of leading to severe injuries or death. So what happened? What's happening on the roads the last few years and again we're measuring this at really large scale is there are more drivers that are not in a position to be able to avoid the crash from occurring and take evasive maneuvers to reduce the speed at the time of the crash, and I think that's honestly why we're seeing the numbers of fatalities and serious injuries that we are, because going back to 2020, distracted driving is up about 26% over that period of time. So it's just, it's around us all the time. It's not really measured well, kind of, in the official statistics. It's kind of been adopted as a you know, as a as a behavior that a lot of people think is okay, and it's led to, frankly, more unsafe roads and much harder to do your job if you're, if you're, in that community.Jeff Cranson:
So I get why there's other behaviors you know changed in the worst possible way. Why would you think distracted driving would have gone up with the onset of the pandemic?Ryan McMahon:
It's a good question. We measure the physics that are involved, but we don't measure what is occurring on the phone. So, for example, if somebody's holding their phone and scrolling Instagram or sending an email or looking for a new song on Spotify, we don't know the difference between that behavior and the behavior of somebody looking for an address on Waze or Google Maps. But I think one thing that has occurred and we saw it almost immediately what happened in March 2020, is we saw that the amount of distraction that drivers were exhibiting skyrocketed almost the same weeks that the schools and sports started to shut down, and I think part of this is that people started to live more of their lives digitally. More activities were remote, more business interactions happened on the go. People weren't tied to an office, so the general commuting behavior changed and the time that people spent in the car blended in with work time and other activities at the same point. So I think that we lost a lot of the structure that happened before that point and it's not really surfaced back. While speeds did come back down in some places, there's still been increases in overall speed, activity and speeding. So there are some vestiges that have occurred from 2020 that we have not shaken from a road safety standpoint.Jeff Cranson:
Yeah, that's absolutely true and I think that that's a good theory. I think just reckless behavior across the board increased, for whatever reason, the mindset that was created by something that none of us had ever experienced before, with the lockdowns and lots of things. So I have to ask you this before we get into the new data do you find yourself being a pest, like me and so many of my colleagues in the transportation media relations world and correcting family and friends when they say accident and not crash?Ryan McMahon:
All the time. I actually had this conversation with some folks that are in a position to probably know a little bit more about the intricacies of this, and I had to explain this that an accident is something where it's avoidable. Right, that there was a behavior that happened unintentionally and caused something to occur. But in the case of a crash an automobile crash those behaviors we have the rules of the road. Right, we're all governed by the rules of the road and they are designed with care to allow multiple people to use the road at the same time. So if somebody violates the rules of the road, it's very easy to come in contact with another vehicle. That's a crash, that somebody is at fault for that, and there are certainly occasions that occur when a car is damaged or somebody is in a car or a passenger is injured in a vehicle. That was an unforeseen circumstance, but those are very far and few between. Most cases are somebody is not following the rules as they're described and as a result of that, people come in contact. The same way in an aircraft, right, if another plane enters the runway when they're not supposed to, we investigate that to the Hilt and there's a lot of investigation that happens with these type of things, or more focus on those type of elements. When it comes to crashes, though, the issue is, there's so many of them that people become much more casual with, I think, the nomenclature and the acceptance of the fact that you have somebody that dies in a car crash and people just think it's just another day and it's unfortunately. I think it's much too casual at this point.Jeff Cranson:
Yeah, I agree completely and I think that's why we really try to stress the term. I know it's cliche to say, but words really do matter and they shape how we think about things and how we communicate about things. And I mean, you probably know the history. I've researched this some and there was a good reason why, you know, turn of the century, 19th, 20th century industrialists, you know, use the word accident because in it transferred over as automobiles were developed and began to be in use, because it sounds then like it's nobody's fault. Right, it's an accident.Ryan McMahon:
So it's funny. I have not thought about that, but you know it probably makes a lot of sense and I do believe that words do matter, that if we're intentional about the way that we're explaining and describing the issues at hand, I think that we can do a better job of managing them, and responsibility really is an important component of this conversation.Jeff Cranson:
Stay with us. We'll have more on the other side of this important message.MDOT Message:
The Michigan Department of Transportation reminds you to slow down, follow all signs and pay attention when driving through work zones, because all employees deserve a safe place to work. Work zone safety we're all in this together.Jeff Cranson:
So the last time we talked, Michigan had recently enacted at least it had made it through the legislature and the governor had signed the hands-free law in Michigan. It actually took effect on June 30th. You had seen some promising results from Ohio enacting their own hands-free law, and numbers were going in the right direction. It sounds like you're telling me this week mid-November 2023, that the trend is going the wrong way.Ryan McMahon:
Well, let me ask you a question to start this off, Jeff. Are you a Michigan State or a Michigan fan?Jeff Cranson:
Well, I have a son who's a junior at Michigan now, and my daughter graduated a couple years from Michigan, a couple years ago from Michigan State. So how's that for an answer?Ryan McMahon:
Okay, so that's a non-answer. All right, that's fine. Well, let me bring it this way. Okay, I like it both, so we're ahead of the Michigan Ohio State game that's coming up I believe it's on the 25th, so right now I think the teams are ranked two and three, and the best way to start to look at the data as you see it now, Michigan, the state of Michigan, came out and put a lot of results on the board immediately, and Michigan actually reduced the amount of distracted driving minutes per drive hour more than 10%. Significant results, significant results. And Michigan had already had more distracted driving than the state of Ohio, so there was more ground to be made up in the state, but the state had done that rapidly. The difference between the laws in Ohio and Michigan are interesting and notable. Ohio had a grace period that actually just expired. So now drivers, in the state of Ohio, if you're holding your phone while driving, you can receive a fine and a ticket. And in Michigan there was no grace period. It started in kind of right off the bat, the tickets were issued and it provides an interesting example of the two. The challenge that's occurring in Michigan right now, and this is something I think that is important, and the data has really never been available to this degree before we pass laws and we wait for some period of time to see if it makes an impact, and especially in infrastructure, in the worlds of departments of transportation. A lot of these projects take years. When it comes to laws, it takes a long time to see this in the data, but we can see it in real time. What I can tell you is, in the case of Michigan, it's actually unfortunate that about 36% of the gains have been erased in the state since the initial law was put into place, and this does happen. We have seen it happen in other states not at all, but it does happen. Where there's an initial media push that drivers become aware of the law, they pay attention to it and, for a period of time, the behavior emulates, for a period of time, the behavior people put their phones away. The real challenge with distracted driving is, though, that our phones aren't just one thing, right, it's a communication device, it's a music device, it's work, it's banking, it's school, and the life pressures that may pull somebody back to use their phone while they drive overcome the initial conversations of the law, and in the case of Michigan, a lot of that conversation was in June of this year, so since that point, we've seen an erosion in the improvements. What I'll tell you, though, is right now, Michigan and Ohio are neck and neck. So, going back to the football reference, they're tied at the amount of reduction in distracted driving in both states. The case of Ohio has been more steady.Jeff Cranson:
I'll give you a better answer. I will always root for Michigan or Michigan State when they're playing Ohio State. And I actually I'm a Michigan native, but I went to journalism school at Ohio University in Athens. So I was even more frustrated that our school, founded in 1804, is so often confused with the behemoth in Columbus. So how's that?Ryan McMahon:
I think that's a pretty good answer. I'm sure that your fellow McGanders is that correct.Jeff Cranson:
It would be on your side in that conversation and the best way, I think. Look, this is not a competition. We're really happy to see progress in both states, but the thing that I can tell you, jeff and it's really important is that sometimes there's a lot of work that goes into getting these laws passed and there's almost like an exhale that happens because it's so hard to get some of this this over the line. The challenge really then goes to the everyday act of trying to combat the behavior that we know is so present in crashes and in getting more involvement. In the case of Ohio, what I'll tell you is, the governor has had, I would say, maybe two or three press events where he has been using the data that actually showcases their change in driving behavior, and that data creates coverage, and then when people see the coverage, we see it in the results that that behavior, that distracted driving behavior, does slow down. So every time the media is talking about this issue, every time that there's a it's the five o'clock news or there's something in the newspaper, or they see something on Twitter that does make an impact. So the public information aspect of this has a big role to play. This conversation, hopefully will do the same, but we know that the engagement from the media and from the public has a big role to play, because that alone actually changes behavior even before you get to the law enforcement side of things.Jeff Cranson:
Yeah, well, you've given me some thoughts and as we engage with the Office of Highway Safety Planning, which in Michigan is housed within the Michigan State Police Department, we can talk more about this with them and keep thinking about initiatives and how to be creative, about keeping the message out there. Because I'm absolutely sure that you're right about the reason for the fall off it's because there was quite a buzz around the initial law taking effect and the governor signing it and what's happened now. So just a reminder I think that we have to continue to be aggressive and diligent in our messaging.Ryan McMahon:
Road safety is an everyday issue. There's just it takes no days off. I mean, I will tell you as we're coming up on Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the second highest distracted day of the year and it's the second only to December 25th, Christmas. These are days where people are on the roads, they're traveling and we know that there are some of the highest risk days because they're heavy traffic and people are sending their happy Thanksgiving texts or whatever they're doing, so these are shopping ahead of the Black Friday sales. These are really important issues. Road safety doesn't take a day off, but the real challenge comes down to understanding the behaviors and then trying to figure out strategies that apply at the time, because the real issue is that one strategy that works today doesn't necessarily continue as individual driving behavior changes.Jeff Cranson:
Yeah, that's a good point in. AAA is predicting an increase in travel this Thanksgiving versus last year. Let me throw a couple at you combined questions. I guess you talked about 200,000 drivers in the program. Is that across all 50 states?Ryan McMahon:
That's 200,000 drivers per hour. There's actually 30 million drivers that we've scored. So the actual number on a monthly basis is about 10 million drivers per month are enrolled in our programs and in the state of Michigan I want to say over the summer the last time I looked at it, I haven't looked at it recently somewhere around 10 million trips per month where we're analyzing in the state of Michigan and those people volunteering through their insurance company or directly with you guys. In many different methodologies. So our technology is available freely. We have something called open road it's crash detection. I highly recommend it. There's no, there's no downside to enrolling. The information that is gathered is for emergency purposes only. So if you get into a crash, then there's an emergency notification that that actually is linked back to 911 centers if you're not able to answer a call or get to your phone, and then it's severe enough. So that's just an example of one of the data sources. There's programs that we have and partners with, with commercial entities, with insurance industry, with safety, just AARP, for example. AARP is an organization that has been involved in road safety for a long time and rolled out a telematics program, maybe just a year ago or so. But the technology you know underpinning all this, the same platform, same methodology of analyzing risk at scale, and it's a hundred percent opt-in. So sometimes I get questions of well, you only have good drivers in the program, so you're just reporting on good drivers.Jeff Cranson:
Well, that is what I was going to ask next.Ryan McMahon:
It's interesting. So, first of all, people do not do well on, you know, like the, the games at the state fair where there's somebody that's guessing somebody's age and you know. The people that do that at the state fair are pretty good. If you ask and survey people and ask them to rate their own driving, greater than 85% of individuals will say that they're better than average drivers. Absolutely and everybody else isn't and everybody else isn't there always the other person this problem. So here's the thing about this. Right, think about the way that drivers get feedback. They only really get feedback through three methods. One is with somebody else in their car, with them, and that's usually not a pleasant conversation, right? The term backseat driver, of course, is one that we've all heard. The other, so you know people don't take that seriously. The other is feedback from other drivers on the road, which typically comes with hand signals and you can derive from that what you will. And the last is through law enforcement, where you have an engagement, law enforcement on the side of the road, because you've been, you've been stopped for doing something. So you know, people over rate their driving skills and we see this in the data. If we actually bucket drivers and kind of each score segment from, let's say, zero to a hundred, we have roughly equal drivers in each segment. And the thing is that these drivers change. So if you look at somebody today, the likelihood that you can assess their safety a year from now is about 40%, because driver behavior changes over time. Life changes. So this is why this notion of a safer, unsafe drivers really it's too broad. Really, it's down to the trip level. So there are people that are conscientious and safe On some types of trips. But I'll tell you is and this is new, we haven't released this yet but if you look at drivers that take their personal car and they use it for commercial purposes let's say they're delivering, or one of the apps that exist out there that individual drivers risk increases about double when they're on duty versus off just because the trips are different. So we're not necessarily just getting one strata, the population and I don't know if we talked about this last time, but the insurance Institute for Highway Safety, did an analysis of notepass, which is the roadside observation survey of individuals wearing their seat belt and using phones while driving, and they looked at our analysis of distracted driving and found it heavily correlated.Jeff Cranson:
Not surprised.Ryan McMahon:
So, unfortunately, we as a society, as a driving public overrate our own safety when it comes to driving and we need an independent tool to help us understand that. Whether or not we listen to that independent tool, that's a story for TRB.Jeff Cranson:
Well, it kind of reminds me of how many times I see families out riding bikes and the adults aren't wearing helmets, but the kids are. It's like t he adults think that I don't know, that their heads are harder or they can't fall, or what you know.Ryan McMahon:
So physics, physics does not care in that case, and yeah, it's that. There are activities that are done every day that people just overrate, kind of the, the probability of these issues, and driving just sits into that. So until people actually start to see their own scores and their trips, it, that's really when we start to see behavior change and feedback works.Jeff Cranson:
And what about a driver who's enrolled in the program but someone else in the vehicle is using their device?Ryan McMahon:
That is the brilliance of machine learning and AI going back over 10 years. So the company was founded out of research from MIT and really one of our core technology innovations is the ability to use machine learning and derive if a trip is in In a driver passenger seat and then looking at actually a number of other things, we can derive if the trip is on a bus, if the trip is on a train, if the trip is a bicycle Haven't gotten down to determining bicycle versus scooter or e-bike at this point, but it uses machine learning and, we have a classifier that has been deployed for over 10 years and continues to learn. So every driver that that comes on the platform is getting the benefit of all the technology innovation we've had before it, and then we continue to learn a s more drivers come on.Jeff Cranson:
Well, that's quite a dilemma for people that are very concerned about, you know, big brother or what they see is invasion of privacy also being incentivized to. You know, let somebody track them so that they can save on their insurance premiums.Ryan McMahon:
Yeah, I think the big thing about this is that you have to. When it comes to any of the issues about privacy, what is the business model of the company that you're engaging in? And our business model is to work with our customers, like the insurance industry, where the insurance company is offering an app to a consumer that allows that consumer to get their own report card, and that report card only goes to their insurance company and it's only looking at their safety and that that is not. That data is not being sold or shared or used for advertising or any other purpose. And I think that when you look at the kind of the broader scheme of things in the conversation about privacy and big brother, that typically comes in a fact where the business relationship between you and whatever the technology you're working with is kind of murky. You don't really know like what the how, the how the money kind of works. In our case it's very straightforward our customers, the insurance companies or the commercial entities, ride share companies, whoever they are. They pay us for our technology and our assessment of risk and we stop at that point. We're only doing assessment of risk and that is not shared or sold or used for any purpose.Jeff Cranson:
Right, right. Well, Ryan, thank you again for taking time to talk about these things and for breaking a little news on the podcast. I really appreciate the work that you're doing and how it compliments what DOTs and offices of highway safety planning and so many others involved in road safety you're doing around the country.Ryan McMahon:
Well, thank you, Jeff, I appreciate having me back on again and you know just that last dat a point that Michigan is reducing distracted driving significantly, but that rate is slowing down. So important to make sure that all the efforts that have gone into this point continue to see benefits as we move into a very busy holiday season.Jeff Cranson:
Yeah, that's good context. Thanks again. 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 buzz sprout. I also want to acknowledge the talents of people who helped make this a reality Each week, starting with Randy Debler, who skillfully edits the audio, Jesse Ball, who proofs the content, Courtney Bates, who posts the podcast of various platforms, and Jacke Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.