One Way to Counter Distracted Driving

Brad Cordova didn't give much thought to behavior modification until he was T-boned at an intersection eight years ago.

A trip to the grocery store became a trip to the hospital after a distracted driver ran a red light and crashed into him, splitting his car in half and leaving him temporarily blind.

"I hadn't really thought about distracted driving before that," he said. "I would text on my phone, make calls and eat in the car. Afterward, though, I noticed it more. It made me realize it was becoming more of a problem."

Cordova is co-founder and chief technology officer of TrueMotion, a company that developed a smartphone app--also called TrueMotion--to reduce distracted driving by educating drivers about their behavior.

Using smart sensors and machine learning algorithms, the TrueMotion app monitors and measures driver data and assigns a Distracted Driving Score based on a driver's interactions with their smartphone while behind the wheel.

The TrueMotion app provides real-time feedback about behaviors such as hard braking and phone usage, and it uses post-trip push notifications to inform drivers about their performance. The idea is that educating drivers about their habits will raise awareness and create behavioral change.

The app--with its Distracted Driving Score--can help identify the best drivers so pricing can be more profitable. From Cordova's perspective, however, the most important takeaway is that technology has been proven effective at changing driver behavior.

In a recent study of 1,770 drivers using its app, TrueMotion found push notifications alerting drivers to their risky behavior reduced distracted driving incidents by between 14% and 20%.

"Sending these push notifications had a huge impact on behavior," Cordova said. "That was really exciting. We proved with statistical significance that this was effective."

Distracted driving can include anything from putting on makeup to tending to children while driving, but one of the fastest growing distractions is cell phone use. The number of drivers who access the internet while behind the wheel more than doubled between 2009 and 2015, growing from 13% to 29%, according to a survey by State Farm. More than 80% of teens surveyed said they use their smartphones while driving.

"This is an epidemic beyond drunk driving," Cordova said. "But seeing some of the first results of the experiments we've run, it's a solvable problem."

Last fall, TrueMotion studied the impact of push notifications on driving behavior. Study participants downloaded the TrueMotion app and were organized into groups, with each group receiving different types of notifications (text, email or both) and varying frequencies of notifications (weekly, post-trip or both) regarding their levels of distracted driving. A control group received no notifications.

The group that received the most alerts saw a 20% reduction in time distracted, while the segment with fewer notifications reduced distraction by 14%, according to the results. Participants who did not receive notifications did not reduce distraction at all.

"I read a lot of research about behavior change--everything from weight loss to stopping smoking," Cordova said. "In all of the research, in the concluding remarks they'd say how difficult it is to get people to change. That's true even when people want to change. Everyone wants to be healthy; no one wants to have kids die in an accident; but it's still hard to change our behavior.

"So we were really excited to see how much these push notifications actually change driver behavior. We thought maybe people would change for a day or two, while it's still novel, but that hasn't been true. The change lasted."

With the data it collects, TrueMotion creates a Distracted Driving Score, which rates drivers from zero (the worst) to 100 (the best) and serves as a driver risk profile. Behaviors are weighted in the score based on how distracting they are. For example, talking on the phone while driving is less distracting than typing a text message.

"The principle idea we use to think about distraction is cognitive load," Cordova said. "If you're driving and something is occupying your vision or brain or thoughts, it will impair you more. So we assign a higher risk level based on the cognitive load of the behavior."

TrueMotion also considered behavior when designing its TrueMotion Family app, which scores and ranks each driver and shares the results with each member of the family.

"Peer pressure and competition are drivers of human behavior," Cordova said. "With our TrueMotion Family app, we hear of people comparing their scores."

(This information is excerpted from a longer article, "In the Driver's Seat" by Kate Smith, senior associate editor, Best's Review)