Ian Reagan and the Development of Technology Behind the Wheel

How do we humans interact with the technologies we invent, like our cars and our cell phones?  These are questions that have long interested Dr. Ian J. Reagan, senior research scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).  Since joining the Institute in 2012, Dr. Reagan has been looking into how our every day technologies, like cars and cell phones, can be enhanced and improved to increase our safety.

Last April, Reagan made an interesting discovery.  After reviewing 16 different studies examining the relationship between laws banning cell phone usage while driving and car crushes, he found that on average, banning texting or any type of cell phone usage decreased fatal car crashes by 6%.  In states that have a primary enforcement component—meaning that law enforcement officers are required to stop and ticket a driver if they observe a violation—fatal crashes were decreased by an average of 12%.

In the United States 24 states currently ban hand cell phone usage by drivers in a vehicle. According to Reagan, the number of states with Hands-Free laws in place is not enough. “What I would like to see is more states implement bans that outlaw drivers from holding cell phones behind the wheel and making that action a primary offense,” he said.

Reagan also noted that making current Hands-Free laws stricter may help safety laws keep up with rapidly evolving technology. Most states (48) ban the use of texting while driving. However, cell phones today are not just means for communicating with others. They are handheld devices that put television, videogames and cameras at your fingertips. “There’s just a million different things you can do with your phone in your hand that have nothing to do with sending SMS or placing a phone call, and laws should reflect that.” he said.

Along with revising current legislation and enforcing it more effectively, Reagan also lauded the importance in developing safety technologies.  He cites Crash Avoidance technology which alerts drivers via sounds, lights, or physical jerks as soon as an impending collision is detected. Reagan stated, “Crash avoidance technology is definitely one of the most robust countermeasures to address distracted driving.”  In 2015 the IIHS worked with the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) to facilitate an agreement with ten major vehicle manufacturers, including Ford and Toyota, which are now committed to making automatic emergency braking a standard feature on all new vehicles.

Additionally, says Reagan, automakers can help their drivers stay safe by implementing driver monitoring systems that alert drivers when attention is off the road. Reagan used the example of Cadillac, which implemented a driver monitoring system that includes a camera on the instrument panel that is aimed at the driver’s face. When the camera notices the driver’s eyesight drift from the road, the driver is alerted in a series of building alarms. First the steering wheel turns red, then auditory alarms sound and finally, the driver is physically pulsed with vibrations in their seat.

“I think that there’s probably some reluctance among the driving public to just accept cameras looking at them like big brother,” said Reagan. “But we are hopeful that it’s a safety system that gains traction because  it helps you maintain your attention on the roadway.”

Automakers are not the only organizations responsible for keeping drivers safe from technological distractions. In 2017, Apple introduced its “Do not disturb while driving” feature that temporarily pauses notifications for drivers throughout the duration of their trip. However, drivers must opt in to this feature by enabling it and can easily disable it.  

Reagan believes not only that the default feature of the “Do not disturb while driving” software should be “on” but that it should also be difficult to override.

While there is hope in the future of driver safety technologies, due to the work of research scientists like Reagan, inevitably it is up to us as drivers to be alert and consider our choices behind the wheel as life or death choices — because they are.