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California VIN ECON Next-of-Kin Notification Bill Has Global Implications for Telematics

by Roger Lanctot | Mar 28, 2013

Telematics systems can do a lot of things these days, but one thing they cannot do is see to it that family members of unconscious crash victims are contacted in a timely manner after a crash.  Car makers are fond of touting Twitter and Facebook integrations in the car, but nearly two decades of work have failed to solve the problem of next of kin notification.

Good news is arriving from the West Coast of the United States.  Legislation has been introduced in the California legislature by Senator Curren Price and Assemblyman Steve Fox to ensure law enforcement personnel can notify next of kin quickly in the event of a traffic incident in which victims are incapacitated.  Action is expected in April.

It is wise for consumers, auto makers, emergency responders and law enforcement representatives in the U.S. and around the world to take heed.  Given the influence of past legislation in California on automotive-related issues such as vehicle emissions, it may well be that California finally resolves for the global auto industry an issue that has plagued crash responders for decades – crash victim identification and notification of next of kin.

The California Motor Vehicle Emergency Contact Locator Act of 2013 (AB 397) solves this problem.  Its passage will create the nation’s first VIN Emergency Contact Locator (VIN ECON) database which will be accessible to authorized law enforcement agencies nationwide.  Such a database will serve as a model to be emulated around the world.

The legislation arrives at a time in the automotive telematics marketplace when car makers have all but moved on from the focus on safety and automatic crash notification that gave rise to embedded vehicle connections in the first place.  Car makers today are distracted with smartphone app integrations and vehicle relationship management.  The life-saving capabilities of telematics systems have been all but forgotten or at least taken for granted.

Each telematics service provider collects emergency contact information linked to the VIN at customer provisioning.  They store the emergency contact information in a database silo which is only accessible by the TSP. 

The TSP safety innovation of the California legislation is that it established a centralized emergency contact information database (VIN ECON) at a national law enforcement  telecommunication center that will aggregate and link the silo-ed databases so that law enforcement representatives will have immediate access to the data.  In fact, the database will backstop the telematics system in case the system fails to contact the TSP.

Some in the industry assume that once the embedded modem is connected to a call center, the well-being of crash victims is assured.  And there are touching stories of OnStar call center representatives contacting family members and connecting them with crash victims at the scene of the event. 

But these stories obscure the reality of an unconscious crash victim at the scene of the crash unable to communicate his or her identity or desires at the scene of the collision.  Valuable time and, sometimes, lives are lost as a result.  Without a nationwide database to aid responders, there is little that can be done to reach out for help and certainly not in a timely manner.

The idea for AB 397 was originated by L.A. Councilmember Dennis Zine in response to a 2007 car crash in the San Fernando Valley involving the death of a 72-year-old mother from Paso Robles.  The bill is co-sponsored by the City of Los Angeles and the non-profit organization We Save Lives, founded by Candace Lightner (also the founder of MADD).

Additional support for the creation of the database has come in writing from such organizations as the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO), the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), the National Association of State EMS Officials (NASEMSO), and the National eHealth Collaborative (NeHC), which specifically supports AB 397.

Instead of taking hours, or even days, the bill will ensure the swift notification of family members who can then better assist law enforcement officials in identifying incapacitated crash victims and aid health care representatives in the care of their loved ones.  “This is a targeted, common sense approach to an important public safety issue,” in the words of Lightner.  “It is unacceptable for families and crash victims to suffer because of lack of adequate or seriously delayed notification.  We must ensure that law enforcement officials have the resource necessary to quickly access a motor vehicle owner’s emergency contact information that will help save lives and alert family members in the event of a tragic crash.”

Lightner’s sentiments echo those of GM’s former vice chairman, Harry Pearce,  at the conception of Project Beacon, which went on to become OnStar.  He asked, at the time, how many crashes would have to occur with no timely emergency response before GM would recognize the obligation it had to provide for automotic crash notification. 

It was only later that OnStar stumbled on the challenge of identifying crash victims and the need to notify next of kin.  OnStar executives quickly discovered they had a real problem on their hands in the event of unresponsive crash victims – a problem that the OnStar service could not solve.

Telematics service providers generally gather motor vehicle owner emergency contact information at the dealership during the service registration process, but there is no means for sharing the information with law enforcement without the customer’s consent – which can’t be given if the customer is unconscious.  More importantly, the information is not stored in a centralized law enforcement-accessible database.

In a similar vein, eight states in the U.S. have next of kin databases based on driver’s license information, but each of these databases is silo-ed and not nationally accessible.  Furthermore, these driver's license systems require law enforcement officers to physically locate the driver's license at the scene of a crash, which is typically not possible in the most horrific of crashes.

In the words of one of the bill’s sponsors, Steve Fox: “The Motor Vehicle Emergency Contact Locator Act is important to drivers and emergency medical care providers.  The fact that this law can assist doctors by allowing them to have timely access to family members and to obtain additional information such as the victim’s medical records and medical directives will save lives.”

Fellow sponsor Curren Price added:  “The agony of not knowing if a missing relative is injured or alive or dead cannot be overstated.  This bill will go a long way to addressing the heart-wrenching issue.”

Research has produced advances in telematics such as enhanced automatic crash notification – capable of alerting first responders to the severity and nature of a crash to determine the appropriate emergency response.  But responders face a real challenge in identifying victims who have been incapacitated.

The simple process of creating a centralized VIN ECON next of kin database capable of closing this loophole will save lives and give family members much-needed peace of mind.  Equally important, it will save time and effort on the part of emergency responders, which in itself may save lives.

The best news of all is the fact that the database will be created and maintained by public authorities.  There is no burden on the automotive industry or automotive dealers, since dealers are already gathering the information.  The gathering of next of kin notification information will, now, no longer be a pointless activity.  With passage of the bill and creation of the database the consumer – and the dealer and the auto maker and emergency responders – can rest assured that law enforcement personnel on the scene of a crash will be able to more quickly determine the identities of drivers and passengers and notify relatives.

In the end, the VIN ECON is really a low-tech, low-cost solution to an urgent challenge.  It requires no hardware or software to be created by car makers or dealers, it simply ties together existing information resources and makes that information accessible to the appropriate persons under specific and restricted circumstances.

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