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Allstate: Can Brain Training Help Improve Driver Safety?

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Insurance company Allstate and brain fitness software developer Posit Science announced today, October 1st, a very intelligent initiative:

Video exercises aid driving skills (Chicago Tribune)

-"Allstate, which called the Posit program "potentially the next big breakthrough in automobile safety," said it expects its software exercises to reduce risky driving maneuvers by up to 40 percent and improve stopping distance by an average of 22 feet when traveling at 55 miles per hour."

-"We'll look to see whether over the next six to nine months there will be a reduction in" the number of accidents between the group participating in the video exercises and those sitting out, said Tom Warden, assistant vice president of Allstate's research and planning center.

I am fortunate today to interview Tom Warden, Assistant Vice President and Leader of Allstate's Research and Planning Center, based in Menlo Park, California.

Alvaro Fernandez: Tom, thank you for your time. Can you please explain the context behind this new initiative that you just announced?

Tom Warden: Our research center is constantly looking for new ideas to improve the driving behavior of drivers of all ages. Recently we have paid extra emphasis on ways to improve the safety of older drivers.

Let me provide some background here. Allstate, as a company, has always been one of the pioneers in helping to introduce new safety measures. For example, we were among the pioneers in the 60s to advocate for mandatory use of seating belts, given research studies on the benefits for drivers and passengers alike. More recently, we helped lobby for wider adoption of airbags, an effective but expensive way of protection that only became mainstream when manufacturers were required to include them.

Let's talk now about your agreement with Posit Science. What will happen over the next months?

The first thing we are doing is to conduct a research study to analyze the real-life impact of Posit Science InSight, a computer-based cognitive training program, on accident rates. We know that as drivers get older, especially in their 70s and beyond, a number of cognitive problems can get in the way of safe driving. We want to see if there is a way to reduce this effect.

We are offering the InSight program for free to over 100,000 auto policy-holders in Pennsylvania aged 50-75, and to some potential clients. We recommend participants to devote at least 10 hours to the training exercises, but of course the more they can devote the better. We will compare the results with a control group.

How will you measure success, and by when will you know if your expectations are met?

Given that we have already started recruiting participants and training may start as soon as next week, we may have some interesting results by the end of March 2009 or perhaps during the summer. In order to have statistically meaningful numbers, we will have to see how many people enroll in the study and the size of the observed impact.
We will analyze the program compliance rates since this type of intervention needs to be engaging enough for people to devote a number of hours to at home. But, at the end of the day, what we want to see is whether using the program will translate into lower accident rates and better safety.

Assuming those goals are met, what would be the next steps?

In that case we will have to figure out ways to roll out the program nationwide, perhaps even offering discounts to policy-holders who commit to using the program. We would also engage in public advocacy, share the results, partner with the DMV and other agencies.

But, we have not really contemplated this yet, we need to see the results first.

The InSight program is a pretty specialized program. It does not train all main cognitive skills involved in driving, such as say working memory or divided attention, but focuses mostly on visual processing. Are you conducting some type of independent cognitive assessment to identify who may benefit from that program vs. other options?

No, we are not. We became interested in talking to Posit Science after they acquired Visual Awareness, the company that had developed the Useful Field of View (UFOV) technology. We felt Karlene Ball and her team brought the kind of research that stood up to our standards and held the most promise to meet our needs.

What was the main business case to embark on a pioneering initiative like this?

As I said earlier, Allstate has a long tradition of introducing safety-related measures, and this initiative reflects that commitment. In this case, our objective goes even beyond driver safety: we want to help our clients. We want to contribute to their overall quality of life and protection. We believe that programs like InSight can contribute to better daily functioning and quality of life. We want our clients to have positive feelings towards Allstate and to know we care about them.

A potential concern we have heard in similar cases, where an insurance company offered a computer-based assessment or training program, is Privacy. How can users of InSight who are also Allstate policy holders know that whatever information the program gathers cannot be used against them, for example to deny coverage or increase premiums?

That's a great question. We are aware of that potential concern, and we are putting processes in place so that Allstate doesn't get access to any cognitive information on a particular individual. The Posit Science program is gathering the information, and Posit Science will only share data with us at an aggregated level, for overall research purposes. Allstate will be completely blind as to who uses the program.

A couple of final questions on related innovation areas. One: given that medications can contribute to the cognitive impairments in older drivers that you are trying to address, are there initiatives underway to better measure and explain those to seniors -and their doctors? Second: Allstate has been aggressively promoting a Parent-Teen Driving Contract to contribute to the safety of teenage drivers. Another cognitive training program, called DriveFit, is being used by hundreds of driving schools in Canada and Europe. Are you considering a similar research study to reduce accident rates among teenagers?

On the first question, that is indeed a major problem. Medication can impair cognitive functioning, and of course as we get older we usually get more of them, which can contribute to driving problems. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any major initiative to deal with that problem from a comprehensive perspective.

On the second one, it is clear that teenagers face specific challenges when starting to drive, before they get the needed experience and abilities to process information and to manage risks. We are always looking for ways to increase the safety in our roads, so that type of project would certainly fall within the scope of our interests, but for now we chose to focus on helping older drivers drive more safely and improve their quality of life. Given demographic realities, we really need to explore options there as soon as we can.

Any final remarks for our readers to understand the significance of your agreement?

We believe this program has the potential to lower accident rates and improve the quality of life of millions of adults. We are excited to be able to offer it to our policy-holders, to show our commitment to innovation and to their overall protection and well-being. We are hopeful that, if the results are as positive as we believe they can be, interventions like this can become a major new safety benefit, and that it may positively reflect on AllState's brand and public perception.

Tom, thank you very much for your time. We will be very interested in learning more about the ongoing progress of this initiative.

Thank you.

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Note: the interview above has been edited for clarity and readability purposes. It is not a verbatim transcript.

If you want to learn more about the topic, you will enjoy these related articles:

- Improving Driving Skills and Brain Functioning. Interview with ACTIVE's Jerri Edwards
- DriveFit (by CogniFit): Brain Fitness Program for Driving

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