Is this a cure for cellphone addicts behind the wheel? Think competition and prizes

  • Dec. 12, 2018 3:20 p.m.

If you’re ready to admit your cellphone addiction is out of control and it’s only a matter of time before your distracted driving behavior leads to an accident, you should try breaking bad habits with a mobile app that promises to make you a better, safer driver.

That’s a tall order in Miami, where preoccupied phone junkies cause 12.2 accidents per day —all preventable if they had just kept their eyes and concentration on the road.

Going cold turkey, which means turning off the phone or disabling texts and calls while you’re driving, doesn’t seem to be effective.

“It’s really hard for people to put down their phones because they are engineered to keep you attached to them,” said Sam Madden, an MIT computer science professor. “You get hooked on likes and social feedback, or you’re stressed out at work and need to know right now if someone responded to your email. The phone is constantly creating and presenting little rewards.”

Madden decided to counteract that craving by offering a different kind of reward —incentives for good driving. He and fellow MIT professor Hari Balakrishnan developed a program that you can load onto your mobile device for free. It’s already working for one million Americans. Their data shows that within two weeks, phone distraction is reduced by 35 percent and hard braking, dangerous speeding and other types of hazardous driving are reduced by 30 percent.

The idea behind the technology is that motivation to be a better driver can only come from oneself, and, like any behavior change, requires education, training and realization of benefits. The DriveWell platform uses sensors to collect information about a driver’s trip, analyzes whether the driver engaged with the phone or made risky maneuvers and gives the driver a behavior report card and rating.

“Everyone thinks they’re above average as a driver,” Madden said. “They say, ‘I’m just checking my phone this one time while I’m at the stoplight,’ but their brain is still engaged and they are still looking down as they pull away.

“It takes three seconds to travel the length of a football field at freeway speed, and 40 percent of distracted driving accidents happen at freeway speed. Think of all the things that can transpire in front of you in three seconds. People think taking a glance is OK. We’re trying to educate them that it can be deadly.”

Madden and Balakrishnan founded Cambridge Mobile Telematics to spread the word that the Pavlovian response to smart-phone communication can be severed while inside your car. Their motto is, “Safe drivers are made, not born.” The two scientists, pioneers in using cell phones for mapping and measuring, have partnered with cities such as Boston, Seattle and San Antonio and insurance companies such as State Farm and Liberty Mutual to curb distracted drivers.

Distracted driving is gaining recognition as a public health problem. Nine people are killed every day in the U.S. in crashes involving a distracted driver, and distracted drivers are 11 times more likely to get into an accident, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A study by Cambridge Mobile Telematics found that distracted driving occurred in 52 percent of crashes and the average duration of distraction during those trips was 135 seconds. Their research shows that nearly half of New York City drivers speed while staring at their phones.

Driver performance scorecards, citywide or family competitions and prizes —such as free coffee, gift cards and cash rewards from sponsoring businesses and discounted rates from insurance companies —compel drivers to be more responsible.

“The distraction rate in South Florida is quite high and we’d love to get Miami on board,” Madden said.

Florida is one of only five states in which texting while driving remains merely a secondary offense, which means police officers and troopers must cite a driver for a primary offense, like speeding, first and cannot pull you over and write a ticket solely for texting. Talking on a cellphone while driving is not illegal in Florida.

A Safest Driver contest in Miami would be a welcome event, although it might be tough to crown a legitimate winner here in a city with the worst combination of bad and oblivious drivers in the world —tourists, recent arrivals from foreign countries, elderly people, rich teens in sports cars, and hostile hot heads.

Cambridge Mobile Telematics and the Saxon insurance company are hosting a six-week contest in Grand Cayman, offering $1,000 weekly prizes and a $6,000 grand prize.

San Antonio awarded three $10,000 grand prizes in its contest. The Texas city joined the Vision Zero Network, as has Miami and Cambridge Mobile Telematics, to find ways to reduce the 40,000 annual traffic deaths in the U.S. to zero.

Competition is one way to increase awareness. Madden’s app measures acceleration, braking, speeding and movement of or contact with the phone and provides a score relative to other drivers’ scores.

“You can make a leader board and compare to co-workers or family members,” he said. “A parent can monitor whether a teen is driving responsibly.”

About 50,000 crashes per year in Florida are caused by distracted driving, according to the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Simply talking on a cell phone quadruples the risk of an accident, the same risk as driving drunk.

“It’s so hard to resist that you have to create new habits. My wife and I will check each other and ask, ‘Hey, why are you doing that?’ ” Madden said. “When you go to a party and have too many beers, you don’t drive. We should treat distracted driving the same way we treat DUI. It’s not safe. It’s not OK. It won’t be tolerated.”

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