THE BLOG
11/19/2013 10:47 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

I'll Give You $300 to Stop Texting and Driving

I am not a doctor. But to me, the fight against distracted driving seems similar to the 20th century (and ongoing) struggle to vaccinate children: a seemingly small personal choice that, when aggregated across many thousands of people, has a huge impact on public health.

If one child goes unvaccinated, odds are they won't necessarily get sick; but if every child goes unvaccinated, then you have a real problem.

In the same way, if you send one text from the freeway, probably nothing will happen. But even when nothing happens, what if in the moment you looked down you missed a sign for your exit and had to change lanes quickly later on to make it? When the outcomes of those incipient decisions are stacked upon one another, it makes for a very dangerous freeway.

Fortunately, on the vaccination front, states have (in the public school system) a choke point at which to compel parents to vaccinate their children. If you don't vaccinate for certain diseases and have no religious reason for not doing so, you can't go to school.

Fighting distracted driving through legislation is a bit like vaccinating against the Measles by banning the virus outright. Although 41 states have passed laws against texting and driving, enforcement is not as simple as presenting a certificate of vaccination from your doctor. As previously covered here, actual policing of distracted driving laws is nearly impossible.

So what can we do when fighting an common, pervasive and unenforceable crime?

Can we do it through shifting social norms, a la film and television coverage against drunk driving?

My gut says no, since distracted driving seems on its face to be so much more innocuous than drunk driving. Texting and driving is like a more frequent version of putting on makeup in the car: something teen girls do. Drunk driving is something bad guys do in movies (sorry, drunk drivers).

My sense is it'll take incentives from the beneficiaries of reduced distracted driving to get us to start quitting en masse. The wireless carriers have dipped their toe in this pool with their "It Can Wait" campaign, but haven't really dove in yet with incentives. Let's take a step back and think about who would benefit, besides for individuals, from a decrease in distracted driving, and where they could throw their weight behind the problem.

Auto insurers

They see claims rising due to distracted driving, but are having trouble concurrently pricing this risk into insurance premiums, since consumers are very sensitive to hikes in rates. They also have no accurate means of measuring the real risk of texting and driving on a large scale. If there's anything an insurance company hates, its a large risk they don't know how to measure. Just like Snapshot and emerging usage-based insurance programs, insurance companies could offer discounts for customers that agree to have their cell-phone usage behind the wheel monitored.

Healthcare providers

The data linking distracted driving and healthcare costs is thin, but one can assume that they're positively correlated. Just like some healthcare plans offer cash discounts for measurement of leading health indicators like BMI, or attending the doctor or gym, they could seemingly offer discounts for the measurable ceasing of distracted driving.

Employers

Companies with large workforces on the road have potentially the most to gain from a reduction in distracted driving. The National Safety Council estimated that the cost of an accident to an employer is roughly $24,000 (including physical damage, bodily injury, workman's comp and lost productivity), and roughly 1/4 of accidents are caused by distracted driving. That adds up to roughly $42 billion in lost value to employers a year.

Additionally, employers can be held liable for accidents caused by their employees while conducting business on the phone. This isn't just limited to professional drivers; in a landmark case last year Coca-Cola was hit with a $21 million judgment for a salesperson's accident while driving distracted. For a smaller company, that size of lawsuit can really destroy the bottom line.

Why not incent employees to get off the phone using some of that cost savings? If you're participating in other wellness programs based on physical health, it certainly makes sense to extend them to safe driving.

What will it take in terms of incentives to end distracted driving? I'd be curious to hear everyone's thoughts in the comments.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.

And if you'd like to share your story or observation, please send us your 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com.