top of page

How to Prevent Traffic Accidents? Moral Hazard, Inattention, and Behavioral Data 

Risk mitigation is an essential aspect of risk management, but it has largely evaded attention by auto insurers that optimize selective risk-sharing and claim mitigation instead. We use novel sensor data to study drivers' risky phone use behavior and how behavior-based insurance contracts can prevent accidents. We first measure moral hazard. We find handheld phone use (``HPU'') to be risky but insensitive to both insurance changes and weather shocks that increase its riskiness. However, an experiment with a one-time text-message warning led to a persistent 15% HPU reduction. Drivers' inattention to risk thus limits moral hazard while inducing inefficiently high HPU. Based on this finding, we develop a structural model to distinguish nudging effect, risk aversion, and the price elasticity of HPU. This facilitates counterfactual simulations of optimal contracts with full insurance and a direct price on HPU (Holmstro ̈m 1979). The ``first-best'' can be achieved with a 40-cent average charge per mile of HPU. A 62-cent charge can resolve additional externalities on traffic congestion and injuries.


What is "Fallacies of Hope"?

In graduate school, I was first inspired to focus on insurance and the issue of moral hazard by this painting at the Boston MFA.

During the Atlantic slave trade era, many slaves would die or revolt in transit, prompting slavers to purchase insurance against the resulting financial loss. However, these insurance contracts provided perverse incentives that directly resulted in the loss of lives, culminating in the 1781 event portrayed in this painting by William Turner. 

From Pearson and Richardson (2019):

On 29 November 1781, the master of the Zong, a Liverpool slaver becalmed in the doldrums and running out of provisions, threw 132 living slaves overboard on the assumption that insurance would cover the loss. When the underwriters refused the claim the owners successfully sued. The underwriters applied for a retrial. At the Kings Bench in May 1783, Lord Mansfield and his fellow judges ruled in favor of the applicants, finding that there was no evidence that the loss had been occasioned by “perils of the sea” covered by the standard marine insurance policy. 


Two years later Mansfield adjudicated another case, where a Bristol ship had lost 55 slaves during a revolt off the coast of Africa. The dispute centred on which losses the underwriters were liable for under the slave insurrection clause in the policy. The court ruled that they were to compensate for slaves shot dead or who died from wounds incurred directly in the struggle, but that they were not liable for deaths by other means, such as drowning, jumping overboard, or “abstinence” from despair at the failure of the uprising...

Legal ambiguities persisted. In 1794, breaking from standard policy conditions, parliament prohibited the recovery of slave losses due to jettison or as a result of quarrels with rulers on the African coast that derived from aggressive procurement by British crews... The insurance of slaves was finally made illegal in 1807 by the same act that abolished the British slave trade, although some underwriters continued to insure slavers sailing under foreign flags.

Alongside the painting, is William Turner's unfinished poem “Fallacies of Hope:”


Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;

Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds

Declare the Typhon’s coming.

Before it sweep your decks, throw overboard

The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains

Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!

Where is thy market now?

Empirical studies of moral hazard in insurance often focus on utilization of services after the losses have occurred: e.g. how to contain the cost of health care, or how to limit spending on accident remedies. These studies address the aptly termed "ex-post" moral hazard. But it is often the losses themselves and the associated human cost that will become the lasting legacy of a business or a policy. My work is a small step in understanding the determinants of risky behaviors, the magnitude of "ex-ante" moral hazard, and how new data and AI technologies can help restore contracting and market efficiency.

bottom of page