Virginia Firm Eyes High Tech Fix for Distracted Driving

By | October 28, 2010

Despite a public outcry over drivers who text, talk and e-mail that has prompted dozens of states to ban the practice, enforcing those laws is proving difficult. But Matthew Howard, co-founder and CEO of ZoomSafer, has created a novel way of fixing the problem: software that shuts off phones when drivers are behind the wheel.

The technology, launched earlier this year, is already in use on several commercial fleets, and some insurers are starting to take notice of its potential. ZoomSafer’s software is installed directly on smart phones and other mobile devices and can detect when its user is driving. When that happens, the phones disable text messages, e-mails and other functions that can distract drivers who are on the road.

The market for the products is large, Howard said. Between fleet vehicles and daily commuters, there are about 75 to 80 million people behind the wheel every day. But for now, Reston, Virginia-based ZoomSafer is focusing on local fleet vehicles, whose owners worry about liability and risk posed by and to their drivers and vehicles.

Howard, who spoke with Insurance Journal for a recent podcast, said ZoomSafer has already spoken with most major insurance carriers in the country about using their software as a way to help with risk management and possible rate reductions for clients who can minimize their driving risks, although progress in the personal lines front is a long way off.

“Insurance companies are very big, very methodical,” he said. “They are data driven. They’re regulated. And it’s time consuming. And I think the usage based insurance model is an example of how quickly or slowly things move, as it relates to new technology to inform an insurance rate.”

However, Howard said that some commercial lines insurers may be more receptive to discounts or other incentives for their clients who use products like ZoomSafer to minimize liability risks.

“What we’re basically seeing is that, whether you’re a small fleet or a mid market fleet or a large enterprise fleet, whether you’re self insured or you have general collision, there’s a more of a solutions approach where the business fleets, the commercial lines, are interested in seeing what commuters do on their own to modify their own behavior, to modify their own risk,”

For the most part, “it’s less about the insurance company offering solutions and, perhaps, more about business adopting solutions on their own and, changing their behavior, and then six months or a year later, showing to the broker or the underwriter, or to the insurance company directly, saying ‘Hey, look at me. I’ve implemented this technology to change my fleet’s behavior as it relates to how they drive and use phones. And here’s the data that shows my fleet is now safer as a result. Would you be willing to take a look at this, and consider it, and reflect it in the rate that you’ll provide to me, upon renewal?'”

Getting to that point may take some time, though. ZoomSafer is currently running on six commercial fleets with roughly a few thousand vehicles – a fractional percentage of the estimated 15 million fleet vehicles on the road. But with time, Howard said, technology like ZoomSafer’s may play a key role in eliminating the problem of distracted driving.

“There’s an important role for technology to play… where you can modify behavior,” he said.

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