Everyone knows that distracted driving–most recently, texting while driving–kills. But apparently that’s not enough to incentivize many people, especially teens, to keep their eyes on the road.
And so a new mobile app, DriveScribe, is now available that awards motorists the equivalent of "frequent driver miles" for safe driving.
The latest U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data shows that, in 2010, 13% of the 3,092 distracted drivers killed in car crashes were teens 15-19 years old.
"It’s become obvious that penalizing teens or just telling them ‘no, no, no, don’t speed, don’t text while driving,’ that doesn’t really work," says Will England, founder and CEO of the app’s developer, Minneapolis-based Drive Power.
Last October, England licensed code from a "digital driving coach" project known as "Teen Driver Support System" (TDSS) that had been developed by the University of Minnesota’s Mechanical Engineering Dept. After six months of writing additional code, England and technology VP Alec Gorjestani–who also leads the ongoing development of TDSS at the university–launched DriveScribe for Android and iPhone in May (an updated version came out last month).
England stresses that while several companies produce apps that block smartphones from sending and receiving while their owner is driving, DriveScribe "takes smartphones from a distraction to a positive influence on driving."
For instance, the app utilizes a relational database from Navteq, a Nokia subsidiary, to inform the driver of the current speed limit and whether they need to slow down because the speed limit is about to change up ahead.
The app also uses the smartphone’s GPS and accelerometer to determine where the car is, how fast it’s moving, and whether it performed any "hard brakes," which are decelerations greater than seven mph per second. All that information is sent to the DriveScribe server and can be accessed on its Web site, perhaps by a parent.
The Android version auto-starts at 10 mph or when it senses a predetermined Bluetooth connection in the vehicle and then blocks incoming text messages, auto-responding to them with a configurable message saying, for example, "Hey, I’m driving. I’ll get back to you later." (Apple doesn’t permit third-party developers to offer these features on the iOS version.)
While the driver is able to turn off the program to text or talk on their phone, they are discouraged from doing so as such actions are recorded and sent to the Web site.
These "manual stops" also reduce the number of points the driver accumulates for driving safely, which is the incentive part of the app. While the app’s consumer version is free, parents can "sponsor" their teens by having the option of setting aside $3, $5, or $10 a month which pays for the available rewards when points are cashed in. These include gift cards at dozens of popular retailers, including Sports Authority, Gap, Domino’s Pizza, and Amazon.com.
A professional version of the app is being used by such clients as Saudi Arabia-based oil giant Saudi Aramco to help promote safe driving among its fleet of about 55,000 vehicles.
England would not discuss how many times DriveScribe has been downloaded other than to say that "hundreds of thousands of miles have been driven using the program."
Indeed, users seem to be giving DriveScribe good grades: 64 "likes" for the app have been posted on Facebook, and it received four out of five stars on both GooglePlay and iTunes.
Asked to comment on DriveScribe, Troy Green, an NHTSA spokesperson, said the agency "doesn’t perform official reviews or endorse any distraction-related apps. However," he added, "NHTSA monitors the latest in distraction-related apps and welcomes developers to demonstrate these apps for agency experts."
Paul Hyman is a science and technology writer based in Great Neck, NY.