It was 24 years ago, but Michael Aguilar remembers the scene like it was yesterday — emergency vehicles with lights flashing, neighbors watching, and silence. He had just come home from a business meeting to find that a drunk driver had veered off the road into the yard where his 5-year-old son and a friend were playing. The car narrowly missed his son David, but David’s friend was seriously injured. He would make a full recovery, but not before spending a week in the hospital receiving treatment. The driver was another neighbor — an alcoholic who spent some time in jail after the incident. Right away, Michael put a sign in his yard aimed at the neighbor: “If you drink, don’t drive. Get help instead.”
For the next three years, Michael continued working at his consulting practice, Aguilar & Associates, but he never forgot the dismay he felt that his neighbor could make such a poor decision. In early 1996, his friend Pat Flaherty contacted him about a concept he and some associates had experimented with as part of a limited museum display: special lenses that would allow the wearer to experience what it would be like to be drunk. Pat knew Michael was passionately opposed to drunk driving after his experience, and he and others who had worked on the project wondered if Michael wanted to help build the concept into something bigger. “My initial reaction was, why would anyone ever want to put eyewear on that causes a person to feel drunk?” remembers Michael.
He met with several contacts from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in May who were very interested in the prototype he showed them — two round glass lenses inserted in a wooden frame that the user holds up to his eyes. They were so interested, in fact, that they invited Michael to show the idea at the Wisconsin Governor’s Conference on Highway Safety in September 1996.
Between May and September, Michael and Pat founded Innocorp, Ltd. (a combination of the words “innovation” and “corporation”), and employed individuals to create a more reproducible prototype for the conference, replacing the lenses with wearable goggles. By conference time, they had created the first Fatal Vision Goggles — and the reaction from conference attendees made all their efforts worthwhile. “It was amazing,” remembers Aguilar. “People had never seen anything like this before.” Conference attendees clamored for their own goggles, and just like that, Michael had a marketable product. He quickly established pricing and packaging and began assembling goggles on his dining room table. Word spread, and soon he was speaking and displaying at traffic safety conferences across the region.
The business really took off when the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a story about the goggles. The Associated Press picked up the story, and CNN featured it as a “Headline News” story. At that point, Fatal Vision Goggles had become a national phenomenon, and Innocorp was firmly established as a leader in creating innovative outreach tools serving the traffic safety sphere. “We saw that we had a real concept — providing hands-on tools to engage people in the message rather than being a passive listener and observer of the message,” he says. “From that, we started generating other ideas about those types of products.” Those ideas included products such as Fatal Vision Concussion Goggles, which highlight symptoms of traumatic brain injury and effects on a person’s physical and cognitive functioning; the Fatal Vision Marijuana Simulation Experience, which demonstrates the cognitive impairments associated with recreational marijuana; and the SIDNE Impaired Driving Simulator Experience, a behind-the-wheel activity showing the dangers of impaired and distracted driving.
Today, Innocorp has thousands of customers in more than 80 countries and works with 20 different international distributors to sell its portfolio of unique products and educational materials around the world. But despite its wide reach, one fact remains: People still drink and drive. They still make poor decisions that lead to injuries and fatalities. So, what are the best ways to hammer home the message that alcohol and driving can kill?
Since 2010, Michael has been pursuing a PhD in mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He wants to understand the theories behind creating campaigns that convince people drinking and driving don’t mix. Over the past seven years, he has been able to incorporate much of what he has learned into Innocorp’s offerings. “I have not seen any other companies develop support materials that help people use their products like we do,” he says.
Of course, it’s never just one experience that will convince an individual to make smart decisions — it’s a whole system of initiatives. Innocorp tools are just one piece of the initiative puzzle in the fight to reduce the number of people killed by drunk or distracted driving. “There’s still work to be done to figure out ways to effectively reach people,” says Michael. “But if we can create outreach that will guide someone to make a decision that saves his or her life, it’s worthwhile.”