Drive Safe, Score Well: App Is A Driving 'Report Card'

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It probably surprises no one who's spent any time on Boston's roads. But a recent auto industry report confirms a longtime rap on our city: Boston, according to Allstate Insurance, is home to the worst drivers of any major U.S. metro area. And that unfortunate distinction contributes to the global rate of traffic accidents.

A local company is trying to change that. It wants to make roads safer around the world by making safer drivers. Cambridge Mobile Telematics has created an app that monitors driving habits. It then gives you a score and driving tips and may lead to insurance discounts.

"It automatically detects when you're in the car and driving, it detects when you've stopped driving, and then it provides feedback to you," says founder and chief technology officer Hari Balakrishnan. Basically, he adds, "you get a report card from your phone."

Cambridge Mobile Telematics founder Hari Balakrishnan uses his firm's safe driving app. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)
Cambridge Mobile Telematics founder Hari Balakrishnan uses his firm's safe driving app. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

You're graded on several factors, including how suddenly you accelerate, how quickly you drive, how abruptly you brake, and whether you're distracted. So if you pick up your phone to make or take a call, or send or read a text message, the app downgrades your score. If you tailgate, the app will likely detect that, too, since tailgaters are often notorious for frequent hard braking.

The technology that does this — position sensors, gyroscopes, accelerometers — is already in most smartphones for online games and mapping. And the data generated can be revealing. For one thing, Balakrishan says, many drivers underestimate how often they take their eyes off the road.

"What we've found is that a lot of people say, 'Well, I didn't use my phone,' and then we show them on the app information about what they did and for how long, and then they say, 'Oh, yeah, you're right.'

"And I myself am to blame," Balakrishan adds. "I mean, I had a really poor score when I started. Now it's safe to say that not only am I a better driver because I don't touch my phone while I'm driving, but my kids, who sit in the backseat, if they see me touch the phone they start telling me that I'm going to get into trouble. So it's actually taught them a lot."

Teen and preteen drivers could especially benefit from a driving report card, Balakrishnan believes, because car accidents are a leading cause of death among young people.

In a test drive to demonstrate the app, Balakrishnan hurts his score at one point by reaching for his iPhone. And in an unplanned demonstration of another hazard of not keeping your eyes on the road, Balakrishnan takes a wrong turn — and we end up in gridlock. That's a lesson, he acknowledges, of the perils of distracted driving: You might end up not where you intended to be.

For the purposes of our tutorial, Balakrishnan sacrifices his score even more over the course of our ride. He accelerates suddenly, brakes hard and fiddles with his phone. The whole time, the app tracks his every move. When we return to Balakrishnan's parking garage, it quickly delivers a verdict: only two stars out of a possible five.

(App screenshot)
(App screenshot)

The app also shows a map of our exact driving route, pinpoints where Balakrishnan's driving was subpar, and gives feedback on how he could drive better. Its main recommendations are that he slow down and eliminate distracted driving.

And while it can be irritating when a spouse tells you you're tailgating or you're slamming on the brakes at a red light, Balakrishnan says the app's feedback is often received more openly by drivers than when it's delivered by a critical husband or wife.

The app is free but not yet available in the United States. Cambridge Mobile Telematics makes money from the app by crunching the raw data it generates for businesses whose customers use it.

For now, the one insurance company that has launched the app, Discovery Insure in South Africa, uses it to reward customers, not penalize them: It gives discounts on insurance and gas to clients with good scores.

Discovery's CEO, Anton Ossip, says customers who use the app have significantly lower rates of crashes, as well as less serious crashes -- more fender-benders than fatal accidents. And he says when clients initially score poorly, they show quick improvement in the days following.

"So an immediate reaction to: 'I thought I was a good driver, clearly I'm not a good driver, I need to do something to improve it,' " Ossip says.

Discovery Insure also encourages clients to compete over who can score highest, and it says that friendly gamesmanship is quite motivational.

"The people that had more friends that they invited to challenge each other had about twice the improvement in driving behavior as opposed to those that didn't," adds Ossip. "If they know that they're now competing with their friends and family, they're almost embarrassed to not drive well."

That's just the psychological impact it's had on Balakrishnan, who's also a computer science professor at ultra-competitive MIT.

"When I started using this I thought I'd be getting an 80, and when I got a 30 it was shocking," he recalls. "I'm now much better than I used to be and I know I'm going to get there to 70 or 80. I just know it's a matter of time."

Balakrishnan says his desire to increase his score is spurring him to drive more safely.

"That is the main reason that's driven me: to start to approach these people who [have scores in] the 90s and the 100s. I mean, this is the only thing in my life where I'm at a 50 when it comes to competition!"

For the time being, that healthy rivalry is limited to employees of Cambridge Mobile Telematics and some of their friends and family members who are trying out the app. But the company hopes to offer it soon to additional insurance companies and employers around the world.

This segment aired on October 9, 2014.

Headshot of Lynn Jolicoeur

Lynn Jolicoeur Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.


Headshot of Sacha Pfeiffer

Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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