Someday, Apple and Google should rig their phones to limit how people can use them while driving. Boston’s new safe-driving app takes a gentler approach, but it also tells us something important: If we want to keep drivers from texting — or tweeting, or Snapchatting, or whatever — it’s a job for tech designers, not legislators.
In Boston, Mayor Martin Walsh has endorsed Vision Zero, an initiative to prevent all motor vehicle fatalities in the city. In that spirit, he announced a competition on Monday called Boston’s Safest Driver. To enter, motorists download a smartphone app, which gives them star ratings if they stay off their phones; drive at reasonable speeds; and brake, accelerate, and turn carefully. Pokemon Go it’s not, but if you’re the type of person who owns a Fitbit, you’ll enjoy the Safest Driver app. (If you like getting awards just for showing up, you’ll like it, too; the app, in my own brief experience, is pretty generous with stars.)
The usual way for government to prevent destructive behavior, such as distracted driving, is to ban it. Massachusetts forbids texting behind the wheel. While these laws make sense as moral statements, police struggle to enforce them. Plus, the driving public is too complicit. Even if you’d never text “you still up?” to an ex while careering down the Interstate, you may still have glanced off the road to look at Google Maps.
Silicon Valley, which shows so much ingenuity in solving age-old problems, has been slower to fix newer ones created by technology itself. The tech industry has at least made it easier to control certain functions of a phone by voice command: “Hey, Siri, play something by Bach.” But even that technology is still glitchy — “No, Siri, not Nickelback!” — and it doesn’t keep drivers from being tempted by push notifications or actual phone calls. Because of the industry’s failure to zero in on the problem, distracted drivers are maiming or killing themselves and other people.
After his speech Monday, Walsh himself sat down in an electronic simulator meant to show young drivers the effects of driving while texting.
It started well but ended badly. Almost immediately after an instructor told Walsh to start texting someone, the mayor got into a wreck.
Real-world crashes are preventable. Also involved in the Safest Driver competition are Arbella Insurance’s charitable foundation and the firm Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which built the app. Smartphones contain GPS sensors and accelerometers that allow researchers to make excellent guesses about whether a phone’s user is driving.
Hari Balakrishnan, an MIT computer science professor who’s the chief technology officer at Cambridge Mobile Telematics, says phone users leave a digital fingerprint. For instance, when a phone suddenly sees more activity while the car is stopped at an intersection, it’s a sign that whoever’s using it is a driver, not a passenger. There are also specific traffic choke points, such as the Longfellow Bridge, where drivers get itchy for their phones.
The most distractable drivers won’t download the Safest Driver app of their own volition. But over time, their rates will go up if insurers reward customers who allow more scrutiny of their phones and more sensors in their cars.
Still, why leave the issue up to insurers, when smartphones can be designed from the outset to identify drivers and keep them from texting? Nobody has the right to drive on public roads, phone in hand, free of scrutiny from data scientists. And it’s crazy to treat distractions that plague millions of drivers, endangering them and others, as merely an individual responsibility.