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IIHS chair: Teen driving remains ‘a big concern’

Nick DiUlio

The relationship between auto safety and insurance is critical. Fewer accidents not only result in fewer injuries and death but also fewer insurance claims. To that end, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) always is seeking ways to make our roads and cars safer, and its new board chair is eager to advance this effort.

In February 2013, the IIHS elected Alice Gannon as its new board chair. She is only the second woman to serve in this position and is one of the industry’s most passionate advocates for highway and auto safety.

“Alice’s strong leadership and depth of actuarial experience will be a tremendous asset to IIHS as we continue to innovate in our research programs to further advance safety on the nation’s roads,” IIHS President Adrian Lund says in a statement. “I am delighted to have her at the helm.”

In addition to her IIHS role, Gannon is senior vice president and chief actuary at USAA, an insurer for active and retired military members and their families. Gannon has worked there since graduating from college 37 years ago. recently visited with Gannon about her passion for car insurance and auto safety.

What led you to the insurance industry?

I got lucky. I graduated with degrees in math and economics and needed a job. But I didn’t want to be a teacher. I lived in San Antonio at the time and USAA offered me a job as a casualty actuary (risk data analyst). I fell in love with the job immediately, and with the property-casualty industry as a whole.

For the average consumer who may not be familiar with the IIHS, how would you explain its role and its importance?

What the IIHS does is leverage the expertise and knowledge of the auto insurance industry to help provide auto manufacturers, policymakers and consumers with information about how to better design cars, improve driving behaviors or improve roadways to prevent or reduce injuries and fatalities.

For instance, auto manufacturers do a lot of great crash testing, but they have a natural bias toward their vehicles. They tend to avoid making comparisons to other vehicles when it comes to crash test data. Our annual Top Safety Pick testing helps consumers compare auto safety in a more objective way. Now, the IIHS Top Safety Pick is something auto manufacturers pay close attention to, which has helped make cars safer.

How have you seen auto and road safety change over the years?

I have seen huge improvements in decreasing the frequency of crashes relative to the number of miles driven on the road, and a lot of that has to do with the work done by the IIHS.

Care to share a few examples?

Back when I started, most cars had safety belts, but only about 10 percent of drivers and passengers were actually using them. Today, it’s more like 84 percent. Or consider air bags. Air bags were known to be highly effective in reducing deaths and serious injuries, but there was quite the political debate going on about whether to make them mandatory. Finally, after a lot of good work and research from the IIHS and USAA, we were able to prove to auto manufacturers that making air bags mandatory could actually help them sell cars, because consumers cared about safety.

In what ways has the IIHS concentrated its energy on teen driving laws and teen driver safety?

Teen driving is always a big concern, and there have been some great strides in recent years toward making it safer for teens to get behind the wheel. Most states have now adopted graduated driver’s licensing laws, and the IIHS has an online tool that helps policymakers and consumers learn about how these laws help reduce teen crashes.

What unique qualities do you bring to the table in your new role as chairman of the IIHS board?

I have a passion for the mission of the IIHS. I had heard about its work from my first day at USAA in 1976, and I’ve seen through the decades how effective that work has been and the changes that have resulted. Consider that accident deaths are down significantly since 1980, even though the number of miles driven is way up. How exciting is that?

What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure?

What I’m most excited about is a proposal that was adopted last fall to expand our vehicle research center in Virginia. We’re adding new tracks and new equipment so we can better test crash-avoidance technology. There’s an awful lot going on with this type of technology right now — blind-spot detection technology, auto breaking, backup-object detection, lane-wandering systems — and right now we don’t have the facilities to do robust testing the way we’ve done with crash tests. But we will very soon. It’s going to be a phenomenal facility, and I’m excited to see it in action.

What does the future hold for auto and road safety?

I expect we will have continued improvements in three major areas. The first is vehicle design as it relates to protecting passengers during crashes and the technology that will help avoid crashes in the first place. Second, we’re going to see improvement in human driving behavior. Distracted driving, for instance. That problem was around long before cellphones and texting, but it’s coming to the forefront now, and a lot of progress has been made in terms of education and motivation through lower insurance premiums for safe driving. But even more can be done.

Finally, how can we make roadways safer? We’ve already seen a significant impact from red-light cameras reducing accidents, and we’ll continue to see things like that helping to make driving safer. I think that in another decade or two, the auto insurance industry will be smaller because there are going to be a lot fewer crashes.

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