Can brain training games make you a better driver? Allstate Insurance to test them

Insurance company Allstate just announced a very intelligent initiative. According to the Chicago Tribune:

– “Allstate, which called the Posit (brain training games) program “potentially the next big breakthrough in car safety,” said it expects its software drills to reduce risky driving maneuvers by up to 40 percent and improve braking distance by an average of 22 percent underfoot when traveling at 55 miles per hour.”

– “We’ll see if 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 outside, said Tom Warden, assistant vice president of Allstate’s research and planning center.

Alvaro Fernandez: I am fortunate enough to interview Tom Warden, Assistant Vice President and Leader of Allstate’s Research and Planning Center, located in Menlo Park, California. Thank you for your time. Can you explain the context behind this new initiative you just announced?

Tom Warden: Our research center is constantly looking for new ideas to improve the driving behavior of drivers of all ages. Lately, we’ve been paying extra attention to ways to improve the safety of older drivers.

Let me give some background here. As a company, Allstate has always been one of the pioneers in helping to introduce new safety measures. For example, we were among the pioneers in the 1960s in advocating for mandatory use of seat belts, given studies of the benefits for both drivers and passengers. More recently, we’ve helped lobby for wider adoption of airbags, an effective but expensive means of protection that only became mainstream when manufacturers were required to include them.

AF: Now let’s talk about your agreement with Posit Science. What will happen in the coming months?

TW: The first thing we’re doing is conducting 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 age, especially if they are 70 years or older, a number of cognitive issues can get in the way of safe driving. We want to see if there is a way to reduce this effect.

We offer the InSight program at no cost to more than 100,000 Pennsylvania auto policyholders ages 50-75 and some potential customers. We recommend that participants spend at least 10 hours on the training exercises, but the more they can spend, the better. We compare the results with a control group.

AF: How will you measure success and when will you know if your expectations have been met?

TW: Given that we’ve already started recruiting participants and training can start as early as next week, we could have some interesting results at the end of March 2009 or maybe in the summer. To have statistically meaningful numbers, we will need to see how many people sign up for the study and the magnitude of the perceived impact. We will analyze the compliance rates of the program as this type of intervention should be attractive enough for people to spend a number of hours at home on it. But ultimately we want to see if using the program translates into lower accident rates and increased safety.

AF: Assuming those goals are met, what are the next steps?

TW: In that case, we’ll have to figure out ways to roll out the program nationwide, maybe even offering discounts to policyholders who commit to using the program. We would also do public advocacy, share the results, work with the DMV and other agencies.

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But we haven’t really thought about this yet, we need to see the results first.

AF: The InSight program is quite a specialized program. It does not train all the important cognitive skills involved in driving, such as working memory or divided attention, but focuses mainly on visual processing. Are you doing some sort of independent cognitive assessment to determine who might benefit from that program versus other options?

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

AF: What was the main business case for embarking on a groundbreaking initiative like this?

TW: As I mentioned earlier, Allstate has a long tradition of putting safety-related measures in place, and this initiative reflects that commitment. In this case, our goal goes even further than driver safety: we want to help our customers. 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 a better quality of life. We want our customers to feel positive about Allstate and know that we care.

AF: One potential concern we’ve heard in similar cases where an insurance company offered a computer-based assessment or training program is privacy. How do InSight users who are also Allstate policyholders know that the information the program collects cannot be used against them, such as denying coverage or raising premiums?

TW: That’s a good question. We are aware of that potential concern and we are putting processes in place so that Allstate does not access cognitive information about any given individual. The Posit Science program collects the information and Posit Science only shares data with us at an aggregated level for general research purposes. Allstate will be completely blind as to who is using the program.

AF: One last note for our readers to understand the importance of your agreement?

TW: We believe this program has the potential to reduce accidents and improve the quality of life for millions of adults. We are delighted to be able to offer it to our policyholders, demonstrating 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, such interventions could become an important new safety benefit, and that this could have a positive impact on the brand and public perception of AllState.

AF: Tom, thank you very much for your time. We will be very interested to learn more about the progress of this initiative.

TW: Thank you.

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