Need for speed? Smartphone apps may make us better drivers

Oct 25, 2010
Tech

Smartphones could end speeding. New apps show it’s possible, and the payoff for individuals would be phenomenal. Roads would be far safer because about one-third of traffic deaths involve speeding. Each person could save hundreds of dollars a year on car insurance and avoid ever worrying about speeding tickets. But it’s up to the insurance […]

Smartphones could end speeding.

New apps show it’s possible, and the payoff for individuals would be phenomenal. Roads would be far safer because about one-third of traffic deaths involve speeding. Each person could save hundreds of dollars a year on car insurance and avoid ever worrying about speeding tickets. But it’s up to the insurance companies to make this happen, if they can think creatively enough.

To state the obvious, speeding enforcement is a joke. No law is broken by more people worldwide more often than speed limits. One in six drivers in the U.S. will get a speeding ticket over the course of a year and more than 41 million tickets are issued annually. Yet drive on any highway and almost everyone is going over the speed limit. There are even several smartphone apps designed to actually help people speed.

One conclusion: something is wrong with society’s approach to speeding. It’s all about catching people who speed, and since so many people speed, it’s like a reverse lottery – you lose only if you’re unlucky enough to get caught.

So maybe there’s a better way – a way to encouraging people not to speed in the first place. How? With financial incentives based on monitoring by smartphone.

The technology already exists

For a few years now, Progressive (PGR) has experimented with an offering called Snapshot. If you sign up, Progressive sends you a little wireless device that you plug into your car. It measures just a few things: how fast the car speeds up and slows down (if you constantly slam on the brakes, you’re probably driving like a maniac), miles driven, and time of day those miles are logged. The device sends that data to Progressive. Safe drivers who stay within certain parameters can see their car insurance drop by 25%. Progressive’s goal is for customers to view this as an incentive to drive well.

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One big barrier to programs like Snapshot reaching the masses is the device. It costs $30, and customers have to install it themselves. There could be an easier way: build it into an app. There are already a number of apps available that quite accurately measure speed. The GPS function on an app could track miles driven and time of day – without necessarily reporting where you drive, which could feel too much like an invasion of privacy. The accelerometer in iPhones and Android phones should be able to detect hard braking.

Smartphone owners typically carry their devices all the time, so it would be in the car with them, and there’d be nothing to install. Certainly, there are problems to solve, like getting the phone to know you’re driving your car, not riding in the passenger seat of someone else’s. And there are privacy questions, especially making sure the insurance company isn’t tracking your location unless you opt-in to allow it.

None of the insurance companies offer apps that do anything like this yet. Progressive spokeswoman, Susan Rouser, tells me that nothing like that is in the works right now.

Financial incentives would steer better driving behavior

But if programs like Snapshot were offered via apps and they caught-on with millions of drivers, the incentive to drive safely would be less about the off chance of getting caught, and more about financial incentives to drive better all the time.

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And let’s take this a step further. Those speed apps, coupled with GPS, could easily know which road you’re on, the speed limit on that stretch of road, and how fast you’re driving. If you opted-in on a Snapshot-like service, perhaps it might offer you an even bigger discount if you almost always drive within five mph of the speed limit. Imagine if this became the norm in car insurance. Millions of drivers would stop speeding because they’d essentially be getting paid to not speed.

It’s still just an idea, but because of smartphone apps, for the first time the technology could make it happen.

The only losers would be police departments, which bring in about $6 billion a year in speeding tickets.

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