A cure for distraction: How cities and companies are thinking outside the box to curb distracted driving

4 min. read

It’s been nearly 20 years since the state of New York instituted the first ban on holding a cellphone while driving. Currently, the only state that doesn’t have a statewide law restricting the use of hand-held devices while driving is Montana, though many cities and counties there have enacted their own bans.

And yet, at any given moment in the U.S., approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones or manipulating electronic devices while driving. In 2017, 3,166 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. Nearly 20% of them were non-occupants (pedestrians, cyclists and other bystanders).

The takeaway: laws alone won’t fix America’s distracted driving problem.

Thankfully, they’re not the only solution. Software developers, insurance companies, manufacturers and more all have ideas for how to reduce distracted driving and minimize the harm it causes—everything from insurance discounts to safety apps to infrastructure that captures drivers’ attention and refocuses it on the road.

Here are some of the emerging countermeasures we’re following.

Set it and forget it

Both Apple and Android phones now come with settings that reduce notifications, distractions and screen activity while drivers are on the move. There’s also a raft of apps available that either block calls and text messages, or read them aloud so drivers can keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. A report from insurance aggregator Everquote found that distraction decreased 8% among drivers who activated Apple’s Do Not Disturb While Driving feature.

Reward good behavior

Though well-intentioned, these settings and apps all rely on one notoriously unreliable thing: willpower. It’s up to drivers to switch them on—and keep them that way.

Companies like Zendrive and TrueMotion are keeping drivers accountable a different way. They use in-vehicle telematics sensors to track hard braking and other actions that might indicate distraction—and share that data with auto insurers. Drivers who perform well could qualify for a break on their insurance rates.

Make it visible

Even without the incentive, in-vehicle monitoring and data collection is revealing itself to be an effective countermeasure. TrueMotion found that drivers reduced their distraction levels by 14-20% after receiving post-drive push notifications alerting them to their risky behavior and encouraging them to reduce it. “This early data suggests that awareness of distraction, coupled with encouragement can successfully reduce distracted driving behaviors,” they wrote.

Leverage connectivity

If the reality is that phones are going to be in cars, how can they be used to increase safety rather than compromise it? Intelligent transportation solutions (ITS) companies like Carmanah Technologies and Applied Information (AI) have an answer, founded on the principle that connecting people—drivers, cyclists, pedestrians—to each other and to the infrastructure surrounding them will make them safer.

AI’s smartphone app, TravelSafely, issues audible warnings to alert drivers and pedestrians (anyone with the app) to potentially dangerous traffic situations while keeping their eyes on the road. Carmanah’s connected beacons allow drivers and pedestrians to connect their phones to infrastructure like crosswalks and school zones. Other apps allow connected and autonomous vehicles to better predict traffic signal states and minimize delays. As cities become more connected, the potential of these apps will become ever closer to being fully realized.

Bring eyes back to the road

Setting aside technology, what else can be done to break drivers’ tapping and swiping habits and bring their attention back to the road? More and more cities are enhancing their traffic infrastructure with highly visible, eye-catching beacons and signs, including crosswalks, school zones, speed limits and more. Radar speed signs can also provide real-time driver feedback to to both grab drivers’ attention and get them to slow them down.

An especially effective treatment when it comes to disrupting distraction and commanding drivers’ attention is the rectangular rapid flashing beacon (RRFB). Installed at unsignalized crosswalks, these high intensity light bars have an amber color and unique flash pattern that are exceptionally noticeable for drivers no matter what the conditions or the time of day.

See an RRFB in action

A way forward

There may be no single or quick fix for distracted driving, and with proliferation of ever more sophisticated and entertaining mobile devices, the problem certainly isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

But there are ideas, many of which are already proving to be impactful. It’s our hope that taken together, these initiatives will be able to reduce distracted driving and make our streets safer for all.

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