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Do hands-free laws make our roads safer?

Massachusetts is considering a hands-free cellphone law for drivers, but will it really stop people from driving while distracted?
Distracted Driving
Photo: Creative Commons

Texting while driving is already against the law in Massachusetts, but a proposed bill that was recently approved by the state Senate is looking to take things further by requiring completely hands-free driving.

The Senate’s law would allow for bluetooth or other hands-free calls, but would ban social media use and bar drivers from manually typing addresses into their GPS apps (though they can still use the apps).

But is a hands-free law enough to make the roads safer? Hari Balakrishnan is an MIT professor and the co-founder of Cambridge Mobile Telematics (CMT), which built Drivewell, a program that offers rewards and incentives to make people better drivers. That technology was used in the Boston's Safest Driver app the city debuted last year. He said the new bill is a good start, but alone, it may not be enough.

What’s a challenge with the proposed Senate law?

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Ultimately, laws are as effective as our ability to enforce them. One of the challenges in laws like this is that what tools are we providing and what methods are available for enforcement?

At CMT, we think it's a good idea to have laws that are very carefully and precisely worded with respect to what is and isn’t allowed, and discourage use where people pick up their phone and take eyes off the road. But what we found by looking at data from other states with such laws is that it's not an obvious win — in some cases it works, in others it doesn’t. We suspect that relies on how well someone can enforce the law.

So if people are still texting and driving despite a law against it, there’s a possibility they can skirt this law as well?

Exactly. Because law enforcement is not able to watch every single move you do — and they shouldn’t, we don’t want to live in a police state — that’s why I think it’s good to have a guardian angel-type DriveWell system as well. It’s on your side — not on law enforcement’s side — and that will mean that you don't have this notion of someone getting away with it.

A “guardian angel-type application” is one way to view what DriveWell does, because a guardian angel isn’t try to tell you that you deserve a penalty, but instead is trying to encourage you to do better job next time. We think that approach means you’re more conditioned to behave better.

What difference have you seen DriveWell make on distracted driving?

Within 30 days on average, people using one of our DriveWell apps reduce their distracted driving by 35 percent, and the improvement persists even after, say, 200 days. With Boston’s Safest Driver, the top 25 percent of drivers reduced distracted driving by 47 percent — that's a dramatic reduction.

What this is showing, which was our hypothesis when we started, is that we can make people better drivers with the right system of incentives. This is proof that safe drivers are made, not born.

How does that change come about?

One of things we found is that by providing really good feedback to people after they've driven, about what exactly they did wrong right in terms of phone distraction, excessive speeding, etc., we then have a system where people can compete with each other to see how they are doing with respect to their friends, family and other people in their city. Making it a game where you try to improve your personal habit allows you to become better driver.

 
 
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