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Twitter, Facebook Need to Take a Backseat to Automotive Emergency Response Priorities

by Roger Lanctot | Aug 15, 2011

It’s summertime in the U.S. and once again people are traveling on vacations and dying in violent crashes throughout the country.  Under these circumstances, the automotive industry’s focus on enabling Twitter, Facebook and Pandora in the car seems particularly out of step with the needs of motorists and first responders.

The more basic need of providing first responders with emergency contact information and the relevant personal health information of vehicle occupants continues to go unmet.  Crash rates and fatalities may have declined in the U.S., but millions of people are still injured in crashes every year and hundreds of thousands suffer life threatening injuries.  Getting proper care to crash victims in the crucial “golden hour” should be the primary objective of any telematics system – or any car maker for that matter.

Existing telematics services provide for the connection to emergency contacts, but only at the request and approval of the customer.  Neither law enforcement officers nor emergency medical technicians have timely access to either the emergency contact or personal health information of crash victims.  And with more seniors behind the wheel each year as the population ages, the need to get personal health information to first responders is increasingly important.

An ongoing unmet need

 In spite of the wider deployment of safety systems and the adoption of vehicle connectivity solutions, the post-crash proposition has remained largely underserved.  OnStar and BMW tout the ability of their on-board systems to notify responders of the severity of a crash, but they have done nothing to close the gap in helping to identify victims and share their urgent care information.

What is different about vacation season this year, in the U.S., is the raised profile of the Yellow Dot program, a nine-year-old initiative to speed accident victim medical information to emergency responders by arranging for passenger information to be stored in the vehicle glove box with a yellow dot to alert responders to its presence.

The rear window-mounted yellow dot (pictured).

The interest in Yellow Dot reflects the program’s simplicity.  But the program’s simplicity masks its shortcomings.  And more sophisticated solutions already exist.

Participants in the yellow dot program, which has no formal nationwide coordinating authority, obtain a yellow dot decal from local law enforcement representatives and affix the decal to the inside of the rear window of their car.  The decal alerts emergency responders to look in the vehicle’s glove box to locate a personal identification card or folder with emergency contact and medical information about potential crash victims in the car.  That card or folder can include a picture or pictures to speed identification of crash victims.

Widespread, but piecemeal adoption and shortcomings galore

It sounds and is simple, which is why thousands of drivers in dozens of counties across eight states have adopted the program.  The problem lies in the analog roots of the program. 

With no coordinating national authority there are no set standards for the information included in the glove box.  Further, there are no standards for EMS access and use of the personal information, nor is there a central authority to assess the effectiveness of the program or to ensure the digital distribution of the vital victim information.

Even worse than these shortcomings is the patchwork implementation which has been proceeding on a county-by-county basis in those states that have embraced the program.  For a program such as Yellow Dot to have a significant impact on saving lives, speeding appropriate care to crash survivors and enabling the timely notification of emergency contacts will require nationwide adoption.  The fact that the program has been in place for nine years with such an anemic response speaks volumes.

There are other shortcomings to Yellow Dot.  Three violent and fatal crashes that occurred in the Washington, DC metropolitan area (where I reside) in the past week resulted in demolished or burning vehicles which would not allow a responder to access the materials in the glove box.  There are also privacy concerns associated with a program that alerts anyone to the presence of personal health and contact information in the car.

A problem seeking a cloud-based solution

But there is a more fundamental flaw in leaving the process of identifying crash victims and their medical needs via a document stored in the glove box, rather than in a secure off-board location.  This problem is clearly crying out for a cloud-based solution.

The need for the program is great, with millions of people injured in car crashes every year in the U.S. alone.  In fact, the Yellow Dot program has been targeted specifically toward seniors who are more likely to have medical issues relevant in an emergency response situation.

Not surprisingly, there are alternatives to Yellow Dot that do provide access to off-board databases.  Two QR code-based solutions are tied to private personal health record databases.  Lifespire’s Code Amber Alertag uses a QR code which, when scanned, grants access to the user’s personal health rercords and emergency contacts.  The service was designed for developmentally disabled individuals.  Mycrisisrecords.com offers a similar service allowing a couple of different ways for EMTs to access personal health information online.

The problem with both of these solutions is they are built around private databases not subject to industry standards or oversight.  (And at least one of these private solutions requires a subscription.)  This challenge is crying out for a solution such as that provided by MedicAlert.  MedicAlert is a prime candidate to solve this problem not only because it has the server-based system in place but because of the organization’s 50+ year history of working with the first responder community and the fact that it already has millions of members.  (MedicAlert also has the advantage of being supported by Microsoft’s secure HealthVault service.)

Still need to ID the driver and victims first

But MedicAlert will have to greatly expand the scope of its service to support such a program and it does not solve the emergency contact problem.  MedicAlert still requires responders to make contact with its database via telephone and password.  It still is left to responding law enforcement officers to first identify the crash victims.

As described earlier, existing telematics systems and roadside assistance services provide for connecting with emergency contacts, but only with the customer’s consent.  In the event of an unconscious or badly injured driver or passenger, valuable time can be lost attempting to get consent to reach out to these emergency contacts.

A low-tech solution from Roadside Telematics that leverages the National Law Enforcement Telecommunication System (NLETS) has been available for as long as Yellow Dot.  But Roadside Telematics requires adoption by a third party such as an insurance company or car maker to reach the market.

Working with NLETS and third parties, the Roadside Telematics solution ties the emergency contact information to the vehicle identification number (VIN).  By working with law enforcement, Roadside Telematics ensures personal information does not fall into the wrong hands or is misused.  In addition, the cooperation of law enforcement and the connection with first responders helps ensure the information is accessed in a timely manner and is shared with first responders and enables appropriate communication with emergency contact

 

Illustration of the sequence of NLETS VIN# ID/ECON (Identification/Emergency Contact) system transactions (SOURCE: IHE ITI ID/ECON White Paper, 2008)

It seems odd that the challenge of identifying crash victims and notifying emergency contacts remains a problem. With weekly reports of personal information being accessed illegally and with wireless broadband connectivity nearly ubiquitous the fact that auto makers have not closed this gap with the emergency response community seems absurd.

In his recently published book “Detour: My Unexpected, Amazing, Life Changing Journey with OnStar,” former OnStar president Chet Huber tells the story of an OnStar operator contacting the wife of a doctor who had accidentally shot himself in the chest so that she could comfort her husband while emergency responders were en route. The chief executive of 95190, which provides call center services to Lexus in China, has shared similar tales of call center operators directly contacting family members of an injured party at the request of the victim.

These stories are exceptional, and they mask the reality of first responders being unable to identify crash victims, their emergency contacts or their existing medical conditions. 

Formal notification of emergency contacts or next of kin, though, is best left to appropriate authorities. The police are trained in handling these matters in an appropriate and timely manner. Police officers are also mindful of the danger of frightened family members potentially racing to a crash scene and causing additional injuries on the way.

Implications:

The Yellow Dot program has the charm of an out-of-date analog solution to a very digital problem. The delivery of personal health record information and the sharing of emergency contact information should be left to appropriately trained professionals and secure off-board systems.

The use of QR codes, though clever, convenient and compelling, is an invitation to identity theft. And at a time when people’s personal information is frequently being used against them, the Yellow Dot actually has all the charm of a scarlet letter, notifying the world of the driver’s potential health issues or handicaps.

With the increased use of vehicle connectivity solutions and the ability to sign up customers at the time of the vehicle sale or afterward on a purpose-built Website, the Roadside Telematics proposition provides a safe, secure solution for identifying victims and their emergency contacts and can close the emergency response gap in combination with a service such as the existing MedicAlert/Microsoft HealthVault partnership. 

There is also a powerful economic incentive for auto makers to solve this problem in Western countries where the wired and wireless infrastructure and public service access point networks are sufficiently evolved to support these solutions. If the problem can be solved in the developed world, there is money to be made deploying these solutions in the developing world where accidents, injuries and fatalities from road accidents are much higher.

The next move is up to the car companies. Once the urgent needs of potential crash victims have been seen to, there will be plenty of time for Twitter, Facebook and Pandora.

Additional insights:

http://bit.ly/nwESkw - Chleon Answers Call for Secure Service Delivery Platform  - Lanctot - Automotive Multimedia and Communications Service

http://bit.ly/ojAJ1y - ChinaL The OEM Telematics System Landscape - Xu - Automotive Multimedia and Communications Service

http://bit.ly/qSA29m - OnStar: Time to Hit the Reset Button? - Lanctot - Automotive Multimedia and Communications Service

 
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