Using a phone while driving is becoming more popular each year. A recent survey from State Farm says that more people are checking email, browsing the Web, and interacting with social media networks from behind the wheel than ever before. That’s despite a number of studies showing that people who use their phones while they’re driving are more likely to crash than their phone-free counterparts and those driving while legally drunk.
This is an obvious problem without an obvious solution. Some think that phones should simply be disabled whenever their owners enter a vehicle. Others are trying to make phones unresponsive while their owners are moving faster than a few miles per hour. A new solution, this one from Kayak co-founder Paul English, is trying to solve the problem by changing the way people think about using their phones while they’re driving, instead of just assuming that a strictly technological solution might solve a largely behavioral problem.
English doesn’t want people to text or browse the Internet while they’re driving. He’d prefer that they play a game instead.
That game is Road Wars. The game uses an iPhone’s GPS to monitor its owner’s speed; its accelerometer to detect sudden swerves or collisions; and its multi-tasking capabilities to learn when its owner has done something else with their phone while they were driving. Players connect the game to Facebook, where they’re able to compete with their friends for ownership of a road, much like a safety-conscious version of Foursquare. The idea is that people will eventually care enough about ruling the roads and beating their friends that they’ll make good decisions simply because they want to do well in the game.
“I tried to create something that isn’t like Big Brother’s monitoring, because I find tools like that kind of creepy, and I wanted to make something people would actually want to use,” English says. He adds that the first version of the app isn’t meant to make him any money, though that might change if it attracts enough attention. “My real goal in creating this is that I want to improve people’s driving. I want fewer accidents. I want fewer deaths.”
Those are admirable goals, though the game is far from perfect. It looks like a cartoony version of a typical driving app that relies on stark contrast and inane imagery for its primary interface. Its dependence on location tracking, combined with the fact that many people will probably use the app while they have a navigation app running in the background, will ruin a phone’s battery life. And it suffers from the chicken-and-egg problem of social games that limit its functionality until more people are using it.
That doesn’t mean that the concept won’t work, however. Though we seem to have made our way through the times when seemingly every company was talking about “gamification” and “learning from video games” and so on, we’ve also proven that our behavior is easily influenced by games and points and silly little things like Road Wars. (The obligatory link to PandoDaily editor Adam Penenberg’s book about how the gamification of everything is changing, well, everything, goes here.)
English says that he first thought of Road Wars after giving his teenage children driving lessons. The teaching forced him to look at his own driving habits, and he found that he would regularly use his phone while stopped at a traffic light or in bumper-to-bumper traffic. So he decided to make something to help him curb those habits — pun definitely intended — while also appealing to his kids. He says that Road Wars has already accomplished that, so in some ways it’s already served its purpose.
Now he just has to see if other people think that the problem of having too many people using their phones while they’re driving can be solved by playing a game, too.
[Image via Car and Driver]