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With new app, city tries to find ‘Boston’s Safest Driver’

The new smartphone app from the city of Boston is designed to decrease distracted driving.

Regular Boston commuters don’t have to look all that far for aggressive and distracted drivers. But now city officials are on the lookout for a rarer breed — their safety-minded counterparts.

As part of an ambitious effort to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries, the city is unveiling a new smartphone app designed to combat distracted driving. Dubbed “Boston’s Safest Driver,” the program dings drivers for speeding or handling their phones while behind the wheel, and launches a safe-driving competition with more than $9,000 in prizes.

“Distracted drivers are one of the biggest risks we have today, in large part because of cellphones,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Monday as he announced the contest in Copley Square.

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Noting the city’s reputation for aggressive driving, Walsh outlined the grim consequences. Last year, 23 people were killed in traffic crashes in Boston, and nearly 4,300 were injured.

“When you think of a city our size, that’s a high number,” he said.

Cambridge Mobile Telematics and the Arbella Insurance Foundation teamed up with the city to launch the contest, which will recognize the safest drivers in the region in mid-December. The app is now available for download in Apple’s App Store and on Google Play for Android phones.

Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which donated its technology services to the contest, developed the app to give drivers feedback for rapidly accelerating, hard braking, sharp turns, speeding, and handling their phones on the road.

Hari Balakrishnan, chief technology officer of Cambridge Mobile Telematics, said statistics have shown that the app can lead to safer driving: Within thirty days, distracted driving — such as fumbling with the phone while behind the wheel — dropped about 25 percent among the app’s users, according to Balakrishnan.

His company, he said, uses smartphones “to show that safe drivers are made, not born.”

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The numbers behind the dangers of distracted driving are stark. More than 3,100 people were killed and another 431,000 people were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers in 2014, according to the United States Department of Transportation.

Massachusetts is actually behind several other nearby states on mandating hands-free cellular phone use while driving. Currently, no driver can text while driving in Massachusetts, and teenagers cannot speak on the phone while driving. While the Legislature considered bills that would expand on those restrictions, they languished and never made it into law.

The city of Boston is trying to tackle the problem on several fronts: It has installed protected bike lanes on streets known for its crashes, and the City Council this fall will take up lowering the speed limit to 25 miles per hour on stretches of road known to be dangerous for bikers and pedestrians.

Brendan Kearney, a spokesman for WalkBoston, an advocacy group that pushes for pedestrian safety, said the app announced on Monday is just one way to help people avoid traffic crashes.

“Nothing works in a silo,” he said, praising the city for other steps they’ve taken.

But on Monday, distracted driving was front and center in Arbella Insurance’s mobile truck in Copley Square. Walsh sat in the seat of a distracted driving simulator, which looked like an arcade driving game.

As Walsh held the wheel and drove his simulated car down a street at 55 miles per hour, an Arbella employee told Walsh to send a text.

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Walsh did, with his actual phone — and the screen quickly transformed into an image of a broken windshield. He had sent his virtual vehicle flying into the back of the virtual truck in front of him.

“You see how fast that is, right?” asked Nick Prpich, the Arbella employee running the simulation. “You were looking down for just a second.”

“That was not even a second,” Walsh said, almost incredulously.

“Yes, and that’s how fast an accident happens,” Prpich said, before dispatching the mayor to his next challenge.


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.