Recap: The Risk Institute’s Annual Distracted Driving & Teen Driver Safety Forum, October 21, 2020

The Risk Institute Distracted Driving Initiative is a nationwide collaboration among dozens of companies, organizations, and government entities focused on how we can predict and curb distracted driving behaviors. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine opened this year’s forum by drawing attention to the fact that although our daily lives have significantly changed due to the coronavirus pandemic, even with fewer people on the roads, crashes are up. More Ohioans were killed on Ohio roads this past July than any single month since 2007.

One of DeWine’s focuses for his term is to make Ohio roads safer, and he identified a number of strategies and programs introduced to address this issue. This includes Ohio – Ready, Test, Drive!, further discussed by Ohio Department of Public Safety (ODPS) Director Thomas J. Stickrath. Other initiatives introduced include the Ohio Traffic Safety Council, the Work Zone Enforcement initiative, and a grant program for advanced driver training. DeWine also takes time to highlight the importance of the Hands-Free Ohio bill (SB 285), which will significantly strengthen Ohio’s laws for hands-free driving laws and, in turn, save lives.

The Risk Institute was delighted to include OSU President Dr. Kristina M. Johnson in their lineup of speakers. The president spoke on the importance of three necessary elements to help make Ohio roads safer: responsible policy, urban design, and changes in behavior. Johnson urged that through collaboration and collective action between educators, lawmakers, and private industry, we can tackle this issue and strive for transformational change. In closing, the president brought our attention to a statistic that we should all keep in mind: 40% of accidents involve drivers who enter an intersection first.

ODPS Director Stickrath went into more detail about the initiatives touched on by the governor. Ohio – Ready, Test, Drive! is a statewide virtual driver assessment program that will better equip Ohio’s new drivers with the critical skills to safely navigate the roads. As part of the program, the state is installing 400 customized virtual driving assessment systems in Ohio’s 57 driver examination locations and many of Ohio’s driver training schools. These systems will scientifically examine student driver preparedness and help Ohio make data-driven improvements to its driver’s education curriculum.

With more than 9,000 work zone crashes in Ohio between 2019 and 2020, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) is collaborating with the Ohio State Highway Patrol (OSHP) to make work zones safer through the Work Zone Enforcement initiative. Because enforcing traffic laws from the ground can be a challenge inside work zones, State Troopers will be taking to the sky. ODOT and the OSHP Aviation Section have identified nearly a dozen locations where troopers will target crash-causing violations like speeding, following too close, and failure to move over.

Stickrath also discussed the new grant program for advanced driver training, introduced by DeWine in September. The program will award juvenile courts with $20,000 through the Youthful Driver Safety Fund to provide access to advanced, hands-on driver training for juvenile traffic offenders and other young drivers to improve driving skills and reduce at-fault fatal car crashes.

The last initiative Stickrath highlighted was the newly formed Ohio Traffic Safety Council. The group includes representatives from state agencies, including ODOT, ODPS, Sheriff’s departments, county engineers, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Students Against Destructive Decisions, and more. Established through an executive order from the governor, the Council will analyze data to coordinate a response strategy to keep Ohio drivers safe utilizing four pillars:

  • Education: the Council will develop and support education efforts directed at risky road users, motivating drivers to change behavior.
  • Enforcement: Promote consistent and highly visible enforcement of traffic laws and identify and fill gaps in Ohio’s current traffic safety laws.
  • Engineering: Invest in engineering countermeasures and infrastructure improvements that have the most significant impact on public safety.
  • Emergency: Ensuring that responses to critical crashes are fast, efficient, and coordinated.

Preventative steps are possible through predictive models that can assign a probability that a new driver will be involved in a crash after obtaining their license, based on target behaviors exhibited during the assessment. Schools, parents, and students will be provided with specific information to affect targeted behaviors prior to testing. Data will permit the state to identify and address gaps in driver training schools, update driver training curriculum, determine trends, and inform public awareness campaigns.

ODOT Director Dr. Jack Marchbanks shared data that shows Ohio has experienced five years of rising traffic deaths, despite safer in-car technologies becoming more readily available. With the ability to do so much on our smartphones, distractions behind the wheel are on the rise. Drivers are redirecting their focus away from the roads, thereby slowing reaction times to potential hazards. And people underestimate the danger of distracted driving, Marchbanks says, despite more than a decade of research that indicates that cell phone use significantly increases the risk of being involved in an accident.

In attempts to change this trajectory, Senate Bill 285 Hands-Free Ohio will make driving while handling any electronic wireless device a primary offense. This includes, but is not limited to, writing, sending, or reading text-based communications; watching or recording videos; taking photos or looking at images; live streaming; using apps; entering information into GPS navigation programs; dialing phone numbers; or holding a device for a phone call.

Research from other states demonstrates that this kind of legislation works. 12 out of the 15 states (including D.C.) experienced a decrease in fatality rates within two years of the passage of hands-free laws, and six of these states saw a +20% decrease in fatality rates. Marchbanks concluded by saying that to help change driver behavior, there needs to be a focus on improving education, more targeted laws and enforcement, and a commitment to lead by example. It’s not about writing tickets, he says, it’s about saving lives.

Dr. Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, Research Assistant Professor, The Ohio State University Psychology Department, an expert in judgment and decision making, attitudes and persuasion, and motivation, highlighted a study conducted by the OSU CAIDe Psychology Research Lab. The study was based on responses from 1,176 young Ohio drivers regarding dangerous driving behavior, perceived risk and benefits, estimates of behaviors in others, and resistance to warnings. Findings indicate that:

  • 45% of respondents have been involved in a crash as the driver, and 31% of those crashes were in the past year.
  • Cellphone use while driving was the only self-reported behavior that consistently predicted crash rates.
  • These younger drivers engage in cellphone use while driving at high speeds.
  • The most dangerous of these drivers are also the most reluctant to change.

Shoots-Reinhard explains that changing beliefs that predict unsafe behavior should change that behavior. One technique that appears particularly effective is messaging on highway signs. The study found that the language used in this type of messaging should be carefully chosen to reduce reactance. For example, rather than a sign indicating “you must turn off notifications,” it should read, “you should consider turning off notifications,” thereby giving drivers a perceived choice.

Michelle May, Program Manager for Highway Safety (ODOT), provided details about the Ohio Strategic Highway Safety Plan, used to identify the greatest causes of fatalities and serious injuries on Ohio roads. In Ohio, young drivers ages 15 to 25 represent almost 30% of deaths and 35% of serious injuries each year. A major concern is cognitive distractions that occur in the process of using cellphones, navigation systems, or changing the radio. These distractions force the brain to shift between two tasks, which slows reaction time and narrows the field of vision. It may seem obvious, but taking your eyes off the road or a distraction that may last only a second substantially increases crash risk.

Chad Wilson, Nationwide Insurance Associate Vice President, Office of the Chief Legal Office – Government Relations, discussed the company’s commitment to reducing distracted driving and hailed a call to action. Data collected from 54 million trips across the U.S. shows that in 2017, 41% of all car trips between the hours of 7:00 AM and 7:00 PM involved significant phone distraction, up from 26% in 2016. By 2025, smartphone ownership will be at record highs. Nationwide predicts that, based on the current statistics, 4,000 people will lose their lives annually and 500,000 crashes will be associated with cell phone distraction (CMT) unless we make changes. Wilson drives home the fact that we need to move swiftly on Senate Bill 285, Hands-Free Ohio. “The time to act is now,” he says, to push lawmakers to pass the bill.

Kimberly Schwind, AAA Ohio Auto Club Senior Manager – Public Affairs, expanded on this premise, adding that inexperience is one of the main reasons young drivers crash. To address this, she discussed the necessity of implementing Graduated Drivers Licensing (GDL) in Ohio. GDL requires six months with a learner’s permit and a provisional license until the age of 18, where full licensure can occur. This not only provides learner drivers with more time on the road but allows them to experience driving in all four seasons. AAA and the Ohio GDL Coalition also recommend night restrictions, which ban driving between 9:00 PM and 5:00 AM for at least the first six months of licensure, and implementing standard seat belt laws for all vehicle occupants.

Schwind and her associates believe that Ohio’s current young driver licensing system does not reflect the latest research on teen driver crashes and how to prevent them. She urges the audience to engage with lawmakers and encourage them to pass Ohio House Bill 106, which would require teenagers to have a learner’s permit for a full year (not just six months like the current law requires) and more practice driving at night.

Dom Tiberi, 10TV Sports Anchor and co-founder of the Maria Tiberi Foundation and Maria’s Message, reminded attendees that car crashes are the leading killer of young people, and just behind heart disease and cancer across all age groups. He shared a personal and moving message about his daughter Maria who was killed tragically in an automobile accident in 2013. In connection, the Maria Tiberi Foundation has partnered with Tolles Career & Technical Center Superintendent Emmy Beeson, with help from other sponsors, to build the Maria Tiberi Foundation Driving Simulation Lab. The lab contains 25 state-of-the-art driving simulators that feature a 16 module Distracted Driving Simulation course.

Lessons allow students to practice their driving skills in a safe environment that reflects real-world challenges such as distracted driving, driving too close, how to make quick stops, and avoid unexpected hazards. The simulators collect data and identify trends, which are shared with the state and the BMV. The goal being that when problematic trends are identified, they can be incorporated into Ohio’s driver’s education curriculum. Tiberi and Beeson both see the lab as a model and hope to replicate the concept at the other career centers across the state.

Further details regarding this innovative partnership and the Maria Tiberi Foundation Driving Simulation Lab will be shared in a follow-up piece later this month.


The Risk Institute will be sponsoring more virtual webinars in the coming months on topics pertinent to the industry, Institute members, and the community at large.

“How the Fresh Surge in Inequality Impacts Your Business,” a moderated discussion about the impacts of inequality and social division on business and culture, will take place on November 10, 2020, at 12:00 PM EST. Interested parties can register for the webinar here.


Written by Jack Delahunty, in association with The Risk Institute at The Ohio State University