Education in road safety isn't the most thrilling topic. Cities have put up billboards encouraging drivers to obey the speed limit or launched 30-second public service announcements about buckling seatbelts. Chances are, these efforts go in one ear and out the other.
So Boston decided to take a different approach.
In a city that derives its "Titletown" nickname from its championship sports teams, the office of Mayor Marty Walsh is hoping to harness that competitive spirit and unleash it, so to speak, on the streets: by having residents compete in a "Safest Driver Competition" as a way to improve roadway safety.
Launched Oct. 3, the competition incentivizes good driving techniques by offering cash prizes and bragging rights. Residents will be able to prove that they're better drivers than their spouses, siblings and friends — the best prize of all. The multifaceted partnership between Boston's Vision Zero Task Force, the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) and Cambridge Mobile Telematics is made possible by a $10,000 grant from the Arbella Insurance Foundation.
Participants download the app and open it every time they take a trip, enabling the phone to gather data on how well the person is driving, while also taking into consideration rates of braking, acceleration, cornering, speeding and how many phone distractions pop up. Smooth driving and cautious cornering boost a user's overall score, and slamming on the brakes and continually picking up the phone while driving lower the rating.
Each week, cash prizes of $25 to $50 are awarded, and a grand prize of $2,000 will be presented the last week of the competition, on Dec. 5.
According to MONUM Co-Chair Kristopher Carter, there are "3 Es" to eliminating serious injuries on roadways: engineering, education and enforcement.
While engineering and enforcement are constantly receiving updates and new techniques are being developed, “education is one of those hard things,” Carter said. For municipalities, it's difficult to understand what sticks.
“This is an interesting way to look not just at education, but engagement by applying a game theory to driving,” Carter explained. “We’re really interested in seeing if it actually nudges behavior.”
They have some evidence that it can influence good driving techniques, as the model has been taken from Cambridge Mobile Telematics' app in South Africa. “The habits that had formed over 30 days of using the app were really positive,” Carter said.
The app has also raised a few eyebrows about what data is collected, who has access to the information and whether statistics gathered could be used against you.
Carter was quick to ensure that this competition’s primary goal is really self-reflection, adding that there are so many barriers in place to personally identifying and ticketing drivers, "We can’t remotely think about doing that," he said. "Nor would we even want to.”
The competition aggregates data at a ZIP-code level and eliminates any personal identifiers to ensure anonymity. The data is owned by Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which creates weekly reports that it delivers to the city. This information is then used to discover which neighborhood’s traffic lights cause congestion for the rest of the city and if there are particularly poor road conditions on a specific street.
Although it's still too early to measure the effect the competition has had, Carter is excited to see the results from the competition and maintain his 90.8 out of a possible 100 driving score.
As for the future of the data after the competition ends, it may be made publicly available on Boston’s open data portal for analysis once all personal identifiers are stripped.
Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.