News Release
Distracted

PHILADELPHIA — According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,450 drivers are killed each year from distracted driving. M. Kit Delgado, MD, MS, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine and Epidemiology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and an associate fellow at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and a team from Penn and CHOP have received a major grant from the Federal Highway Administration, an agency within the United States Department of Transportation, to help curb distracted driving. The team will investigate strategies — such as redesigning insurance discounts — for reducing cell phone use while driving. The $2.3 million project, which includes $1.84 million in federal funds in addition to contributed funding from several participating organizations, is one of the largest federally-funded research projects to address driving and cell phone use.

The objective of the grant is to translate findings from the field of behavioral economics to interventions that can be delivered through smartphones to “nudge” drivers to reduce distracted driving arising from cell phone use. Behavioral economics combines insights and findings from psychology and economics to explain, and try to correct, counter-productive or predictably irrational decision-making.

“Typing and swiping on your phone while driving is something that everyone knows is dangerous and usually illegal, yet people continue to do it. Because it has become a common, impulsive, and almost subconscious behavior, they may not even know how much they are doing it,” said Delgado. “By bringing together a team with experience in behavioral economics and behavioral design, traffic safety, statistics, and epidemiology, we’ll be able to determine whether these strategies successfully address these other problem areas and can help reduce the dangerous and potentially lethal behavior of using a cell phone while driving,”

The study, a collaboration between researchers in Penn’s Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, the Penn Injury Science Center, the Wharton School, and CHOP’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention, will build on previous innovative and successful work conducted at Penn for testing behavioral economic strategies to change difficult health behaviors such as quitting smoking, staying fit, and taking medications as prescribed.

The project has two parts. First, the collaborators will seek to discover strategies that can be deployed in usage-based insurance (UBI) programs using data collected by Progressive based on an app developed by TrueMotion, a smartphone telematics platform. Progressive Insurance is the first and one of the largest providers of usage-based insurance in the United States, while TrueMotion is a leading provider of the technology or platform services for UBI programs.

Unlike typical insurance policies where rates are based on traditional ratings variables such as a customer’s demographics, UBI uses in-vehicle devices or smartphone apps to understand actual driving behavior. In-vehicle devices and smartphone UBI apps capture driving data such as hard braking, speed, accelerations, time of day, and miles driven. More advanced smartphone telematics technology automatically detects distracting phone use like calls and other types of hand-held or hands-free phone use. Insurers can factor these new distraction events into programs offering safe driving discounts. 

“Distracted driving is a nationwide epidemic that threatens everyone on the road. The good news is that advanced smartphone telematics platforms can measure this behavior and give insurers the ability to apply behavioral modification strategies to reduce distraction,” said Ted Gramer, CEO of TrueMotion. “Dr. Delgado and the team at Penn and CHOP are at the forefront of behavioral research, and Progressive is a true innovator in auto insurance and UBI. We’re excited to partner with them to find new solutions to reduce distracted driving and save lives on the road.”

Customers who have already enrolled in Progressive’s Snapshot Mobile, a smartphone usage-based insurance program using an app developed by TrueMotion, will be invited to participate with a goal of recruiting 1,500 drivers nationally. The drivers will be randomly assigned to six study groups, with circumstances varying in each group to allow the research team to determine which behavioral strategies are most effective in reducing hand-held cell phone use while driving.

Strategies to be tested include encouraging adoption of phone settings that automatically silence notifications while driving, providing feedback on the amount of phone use while driving relative to other customers in the same demographic, and awarding various financial incentives for staying off the phone. The goal is to develop insights on how safe driving discounts, which do not currently factor in phone use while driving, could be redesigned to be more salient and effective, thereby rewarding safer drivers with lower insurance premiums and also making all insurance customers safer behind the wheel.

Additionally, using UBI technology, the researchers will partner with large employers to test strategies to lower cell phone use among employees while driving. Teams of drivers will “compete” with each other to register the lowest levels of phone use, with social recognition for high-performing groups serving as key motivator. Financial incentives may be used as well. This part of the study potentially includes both company and private vehicles. The details of this study will be announced separately.

“Through data gained from Snapshot, we know that actual driving behavior is the leading variable in predicting a driver’s risk for insurance purposes,” said James Haas, Progressive’s Business Leader of Usage Based Insurance. “Mobile phone use continues to rise and we’re excited to see if the strategies Dr. Delgado’s team at Penn and CHOP use will lead to fewer distractions while driving and encourage safer driving behaviors. “ 

Forty-six states have banned texting while driving and 16 have banned using a handheld cell phone while in the car. “Given that the impact of current strategies so far has been limited, we hope our research will lead to solutions that can make a difference on a wide scale as use of technology in auto-insurance programs becomes more common,” Delgado said.

Delgado also heads Penn’s Behavioral Science & Analytics for Injury Reduction (BeSAFIR) lab, which applies data science and behavioral economics toward injury prevention and trauma and emergency care improvement. Collaborators on the project include Scott Halpern, Kevin Volpp, and Roy Rosin from Penn’s Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, Catherine C. McDonald, from the Penn School of Nursing and CIRP, Doug Wiebe from the Penn Injury Science Center, Ian Barnett from Penn’s department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Informatics, Dylan Small from the Wharton School, and Flaura Winston from the CIRP. 

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Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $7.8 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top medical schools in the United States for more than 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report’s survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation’s top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $405 million awarded in the 2017 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center — which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report — Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital – the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, a leading provider of highly skilled and compassionate behavioral healthcare.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2017, Penn Medicine provided $500 million to benefit our community.

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