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Business

The Interview: Steve DiBiagio, PHH Arval's senior vice president of strategic alliances

From texting to browsing the Web to eating in the car, driver distraction has become a growing problem on the roadways.

In 2010, more than 3,000 people died in accidents believed to have been caused by distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In December, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended a nationwide ban on using smartphones while driving, including the use of hand-held devices for non-emergencies.

It's against the law to talk on a hand-held phone while driving in Maryland. And this year, some lawmakers are pushing to make the state's ban on cellphone use by drivers a primary offense rather than a secondary one.

Highway safety advocates are not the only ones concerned with distracted driving. Corporate America, too, wants to keep employees who work on the road safe.

PHH Arval, the Sparks-based auto fleet management business which leases and manages vehicles for Fortune 500 companies, sees distracted driving firsthand. PHH Arval recently partnered with Herndon, Va.,-based technology firm ZoomSafer to launch an application for smartphones that blocks employees from texting, emailing or browsing the Web while driving.

The Baltimore Sun recently spoke with Steve DiBiagio, PHH's senior vice president of strategic alliances, about distracted driving and the company's new technology.

How big of a problem is distracted driving?

It's huge. Let's define distracted driving. It's any visual or cognitive distraction while a person is behind the wheel of a car. For years, eating a sandwich, putting on makeup or drinking coffee was distracted driving.

What has really elevated the issue is the explosion of mobile phones. What we're seeing is the risk is significant. …

There is a lot of attention and discussion about teenagers. The group that we're responsible for and work with are adults. Distracted driving on cellphones is not just a teenage problem. There are 199 million adult drivers in the U.S. and 47 percent of them admit to texting, emailing or browsing while driving.

The adult issue is enormous. The other element about adult usage and distracted driving is they're often the individuals who teach young people to drive. They are the responsible age group we look to model the right behavior. Unfortunately, the behavior we're seeing in that group is troubling.

When did you start seeing the increase in distracted driving due to mobile phones?

We work with clients on safety, everything from putting the right equipment on cars to driver record checks and so on. As cellphones started to grow in popularity, we became very aware of the distracted element of that. Our drivers are behind a wheel of a car most of their working day.

Two years ago, when voice started to migrate to digital, text and emails, we got really focused on this. Not only is their attention off the road, but their hands and eyes are off the road.

At that point, we started looking for partners engaged in technology to address this problem.

Tell us about your partnership with ZoomSafer.

ZoomSafer is a technology company whose sole focus is to bring additional safety tools to the driver in combating distracted driving. ... They see this not as a technology issue but a behavioral issue. Their technology is designed to address the bad behavior or dangerous behavior of texting while driving.

Every one of our clients has a safety program, everything from how they should be trained to what they should do or not do. Enforcement is after the fact.

What ZoomSafer has developed is a proactive solution and in essence, it makes it ironclad in terms of compliance with company policy.

How does the technology work?

I download the software to the phone and [install] a device in my vehicle, which is the size of a two-by-two inch rectangle. When my phone detects the car is moving, it disables the data transmission.

When I have my smartphone in the car and I start moving, it automatically suppresses text messages and email messages.

If the client wants, it will suppress voice. In essence, as I'm driving, I don't even know I'm getting emails.

If [an employee] is driving and I send her an email, she doesn't know she has received it. But I get an automatic answer back, [saying something like], "Hello, PHH is focused on safety. I'm in the car right now and I'll respond as soon as I stop driving."

When [the employee] stops, she'll receive all messages. She doesn't lose any information. …

It takes the whole challenge of compliance out of the equation.

Were there concerns about whether the technology would cross the line in dictating personal behavior?

The clients say, "This is my company policy. You're not supposed to smoke in the car, not supposed to speed or drive while emailing."

The company develops the policy and [we] customize a solution to successfully enforce the policy.

What kind of response have you gotten from clients?

We have a few clients that are piloting the device. The response has been extremely positive.

It would be fair to say that we're in the first phase of the product launch, and we're getting tremendously positive reaction by the market and expect to see significant growth of this product this year.

Do you expect to see this kind of technology to spread beyond corporate use?

If you go back 40 years, it was the seatbelt, which was an option. And now it's mandatory.

I can't think of any responsible parent, if the device was available to them, who would not immediately provide it to their children or anyone in their family.

There are companies that promote this in the retail segment.

Hanah.cho@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/hanahcho

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