By the time you finish reading this, somebody, somewhere in the United States will have been in a wreck caused by distracted driving. Maybe they will be the person texting or calling or watching a video on a smartphone. Maybe it will be the other driver doing those things.
And maybe they’ll die in what the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration refers to as “distraction-affected crashes.” About 3,200 people a year do. Close to half of those killed are in their teens or 20s.
Louisiana-based Cellcontrol is hoping its technology can help change the consumer habits that generate those kinds of numbers. After years of focusing on commercial customers and fleets, Cellcontrol is moving to get its products into the hands of individuals and families through partnerships with insurance companies and a more consumer-friendly device.
“Look at the statistics. It’s horrific,” Cellcontrol CEO Rob Guba said. “Go down the street today on the way back to your office. Look to your left, look to your right, and I guarantee you will see one or two people on the phone while you’re driving. It’s just a problem.”
The federal government, insurance carriers and telecommunications companies are pouring money into education campaigns to stem the tide. AT&T, for example, has launched the “It Can Wait” campaign, with a virtual reality simulator that shows the consequences of distracted driving and a free app for customers that auto-replies to texts once the car’s speed reaches 15 mph.
In December, State Farm, Louisiana’s largest auto insurer, released the results of its annual survey. Among other things, the company found that the percentage of drivers accessing the Internet jumped from 13 percent in 2009 to 29 percent in 2015. Over the same time, driving and texting increased by 5 percentage points to 36 percent. Hand-held phoning and driving dropped 14 points to 51 percent.
At the time, State Farm spokesman Roszell Gadson described the easy-access tech as a double-edged sword.
“We can’t allow safety to take a back seat to convenience,” he said.
Meanwhile, states also are increasing the penalties for texting and driving or using the devices in school zones. This session, the Louisiana Legislature passed a law upping the texting-while-driving penalties from $175 for a first-offense to $500. The fine for a repeat offense was doubled to $1,000.
All those efforts have made people more aware that using a phone while driving, whether texting or calling, is a problem, Guba said. As a result, the consumer market for solutions is rapidly emerging.
Cellcontrol’s strategy to capitalize on that demand primarily relies on partnerships with insurance companies. Insurance companies’ customers get discounts on Cellcontrol’s DriveID product, which retails for $129.
Cellcontrol already has partnerships with seven insurers, including Allstate, its subsidiary, Esurance, and Liberty Mutual and expects to announce deals with two of the five largest insurers later this year.
Cellcontrol also has made its devices more consumer-friendly.
In the past, Cellcontrol’s products only had the ability to restrict the use of mobile devices, Guba said. Now, Cellcontrol can do that and also provide drivers with information that educates them on how to become a better driver.
Cellcontrol’s DriveID allows users or parents to customize the level of restrictions on the use of mobile devices while driving. A teen driver’s parents may want to limit phone use to calling them or 911. More advanced drivers may want to allow GPS navigation. The device can also track driving habits, such as rapid acceleration, harsh cornering and braking and tell whether they occurred while the person was using the phone.
The technology is advanced enough to restrict phone usage while the driver holds it but allow full usage when the phone is handed to a passenger. DriveID mounts beneath the rear view mirror. It uses Bluetooth to pair with smartphones or tablets. The app supports Apple iOS, Android and a few other operating systems.
Last month, Consumer Reports magazine reviewed and endorsed the device. “Based on our experience, buying Cellcontrol DriveID is money well spent on preventing a new driver and/or your entire family from using a cellphone while driving,” the magazine said.
Chief Operating Officer Steve McKinney said Cellcontrol believes that offering options, such as allowing important calls through without texting or browsing, will make consumers more likely to adopt the device.
The size of the market for distracted driving solutions remains unclear, and just how much Cellcontrol can grab of that potential is just as murky.
“I could give you projections all day long. It’s like a SWAG (scientific wild-ass guess) number, you know,” Guba said. “We’ve seen growth, and we know what’s going on. The factor is if it really starts to take off within society, the number can get rather staggering rather quickly.”
Cellcontrol has more than 40,000 of its devices in commercial fleets, and maybe 10,000 are owned by individuals. But Guba said it wouldn’t take much to double those numbers in a short period of time.
The company also hopes the “driving scores” its devices record will eventually gain the kind of acceptance with insurance companies that credit scores have with banks, McKinney said.
“We want to give you a driving score, and you can go around and take that to insurance companies and shop around and see who is going to give you the best rate,” McKinney said.
There’s not enough data available yet for insurance companies to accept the driving scores. Cellcontrol is working with global credit-reporting firm TransUnion to gather that information. As more and more people use the devices, Cellcontrol believes it will be able to vet and validate the statistics. The company may also be able to correlate its commercial-fleet results to consumers, McKinney said. Some commercial customers have reduced accidents by more than 50 percent, and one cut rear-end collisions by more than 70 percent.
Cellcontrol now protects about 10 million commercial-fleet miles a week. In the next several months, the company hopes to have gathered enough data from commercial users to correlate the results to individuals.
James Lynch, the Insurance Information Institute’s chief actuary and vice president of research and information services, said the number of auto accidents has increased in the past couple of years, and some auto insurance industry members are pointing at smartphones as the reason.
Automakers have made it easier to answer the phone without looking at it, but surveys have shown talking hands-free is just as distracting, he said. Either way, people start thinking about what they’re going to say rather than focusing on what’s coming at them on the road.
A host of other things — adjusting the stereo, eating and grooming — also distracts drivers, he said. Even dashboards, which can track gas mileage, the temperature outside and inside the car, and tire pressure, compete for drivers’ attention.
Lynch said he’s not familiar with Cellcontrol and isn’t endorsing the company’s technology.
“A product that prevents distracted driving is something the industry would encourage people to adopt,” he said.
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.