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Apps try to monitor, tame texting drivers

One new system offers rewards; specialists wary of interactions

Most public safety campaigns against texting while driving take a “just don’t use your cellphone” approach.

But for local software engineer Paul English, the solution is to turn technology against itself. How? With a smartphone, of course.

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English has designed an in-car app that awards points for safe driving, but takes them away for texting.

It joins a growing number of apps that aim to convert the device that contributes to distracted driving into a tool that combats the problem.

Some apps turn phones into advice-giving driving coaches. Other apps report teens’ bad driving to insurance companies or parents; some apps automatically respond to texts, e-mails, or calls with an away message stating that the recipient is busy driving.

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But not every app is being applauded. Many safety advocates worry that some well-intentioned developers may only be adding one more dangerous distraction.

“I’m not sure that creating an app that creates more interaction while driving is the best way to prevent distracted driving,” said Rocco Panetta, spokesman for the Texting Awareness Foundation, an antitexting and driving advocacy group based in New York. “The easiest technological solution is to turn the phone off.”

The Road Wars app awards users virtual coins if they do not exceed the speed limit.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The Road Wars app awards users virtual coins if they do not exceed the speed limit.

But in the age of ubiquitous smartphone use, that’s not realistic, said English, a cofounder of the popular travel site Kayak.com who recently stepped away from his daily role there. Most people have become so conditioned to using smartphones that it’s “fantasy” to expect them to go cold turkey behind the wheel, he said.

“It’s a fact of life that people are using their mobile phones to get better information, like GPS, while they are driving. That’s not going to change,” English said.

He believes that by using a smartphone to reward drivers for not reaching for it every other minute, they may actually pay more attention to practicing good-driving habits.

English’s app, called Road Wars, debuted in November. It awards users virtual coins if they do not exceed the speed limit, and takes them away as a penalty for texting while driving. Much like the board game Risk, players compete with friends and family members to “capture” roads by being the most responsible driver. And this being the age of social media, they can boast about their scores on Facebook.

“Road Wars was invented to add some playfulness to safe driving — you touch your phone, your bonus gets wiped out,” he said. “If I come to a stop light, and I quickly text someone that I’m going to be late to a meeting — it’s dangerous. The game is to help keep me in check.”

For now, the app does not reward safe drivers beyond showering them with virtual coins and Internet bragging rights. But points could eventually become redeemable for real-world goods, or parents might use the app to reward their children who are safe drivers. “Kids could get gas money from their parents if their driving is good,” said English.

To understand just how prevalent smartphone use is among motorists, just look around on the road. Ray LaHood, former US secretary of transportation, has called distracted driving an “epidemic on America’s roadways.” At any given moment, about 660,000 motorists across the country are using some kind of electronic device while driving, according to the US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That behavior contributed to more than 3,300 traffic fatalities and 387,000 injuries in 2011, the agency reported in April.

Massachusetts and 40 other states have bans against texting while driving, and 12 have outlawed handheld phone use altogether while driving.

“It’s already against the law and yet people do it anyway,” said Patricia Jacobs, president of AT&T New England. “Ninety-eight percent of people know texting and driving is dangerous, and close to 50 percent of them will do it anyway.”

For AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign to stop texting and driving, the company developed an app called DriveMode that can send automatic replies to anyone contacting a driver’s smartphone. The app kicks in when the phone detects the car is moving faster than 25 miles per hour.

“It serves as a reminder that people shouldn’t be texting and driving,” said Jacobs. “You can ruin the lives of others on the road by engaging in this very risky behavior. We really want to make texting and driving as unacceptable as drinking and driving.”

But DriveMode works only with Android and BlackBerry devices. A chief complaint among safety advocates and some software developers is that Apple Inc. will not allow outside applications to override the core functions of the iPhone — such as receiving texts or phone calls — no matter where the device is being used.

Apple did not return a call seeking comment.

“It’s a public policy issue that Apple needs to get out ahead of,” said Mike Moen, chief executive of Drive Power LLC, a Minneapolis startup that developed an app called DriveScribe. The app is similar to English’s Road Wars in that it uses technology in a smartphone to determine when a driver is traveling faster than the speed limit. It also awards points to those who employ safe driving habits. The added incentive with DriveScribe is that parents can monitor a teen driver, and Amazon.com gift cards are awarded to drivers who do not take risks. The app can also work as a coach by alerting motorists when there is an upcoming sharp turn or stop sign. On Android devices, it can block incoming messages.

Also like English’s app, DriveScribe is best used when the phone is in a cradle and mounted to the dash of a car. Moen said it is based on technology from the University of Minnesota that found proper visual and audio alerts, such as those from a dash-mounted device, are not overly distracting for drivers, unlike handling a phone to take a call or respond to a text.

The Road Wars app changes the color of the iPhone screen if a motorist is speeding — it glows red if they are going too fast, and flashes red and blue when they are really moving. The app also displays the number of coins users earns as they drive. If it senses a driver is using the phone, it alerts the driver to keep hands on the wheel.

Jeff Larson, president of the Safe Roads Alliance, a Wellesley-based advocacy group, tried Road Wars recently. There were a few glitches, such as a warning that he was touching the phone when his hands were not on it, and displaying the wrong speed limits.

Overall, Larson said, Road Wars was visual overload — just another electronic thing that kept his eyes from the road. “There’s no doubt that the technology, as it is, adds to the distraction,” he said.

English acknowledges the app is not for everyone, and that some drivers should just power down their phones while they are in the car. But for those who can’t or won’t, he said, “What we’re doing is giving them something that can tune up their driving skills.”

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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