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Many Floridians Are Distracted Drivers. This App Wants To Change That.

A man is distracted by his cell phone while driving through traffic.
LM Otero
A man is distracted by his cell phone while driving through traffic.

You tell yourself that you’ll only check Instagram at the red light, or change your Spotify while driving alone on cruise control through Alligator Alley.

But those few seconds can be deadly for South Florida drivers. In fact, distracted driving causes about 50,000 crashes per year in Florida, according to the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. 

MIT computer science professor Sam Madden wants to change that. Madden co-developed the free safe driving app  DriveWell, which uses sensors to record when a driver picks up and engages with the phone, breaks harshly or speeds while driving. 

Now says he would like to  expand the app to South Floridaand give drivers incentives to use it. Some of those incentives include discounts with local insurance companies and prizes for the least distracted driver while using the app.

"A typical way we like to do this is to have a partner like an insurance company, or somebody else who is interested in safe driving, who might put out some prize money," he said. 

The app is currently partnering with  San Antonio, Seattle and Boston for these “safest driver contests." 

“I think we’re all guilty of this - you get sucked into your phone, and what you thought was going to be a quick text message or checking your email turns into 10 minutes of you checking your inbox,” Madden said. “That’s a really important behavior, just to make people aware of that, and the app tries to show that behavior really clearly.”

At the end of each drive, users get a “score” on the app that provides feedback on factors like breaking, speeding and distraction. A 100 means you’re a great driver, and a 0 is, well, you’re terrible, Madden said.

The app, which was developed with fellow MIT CS professor  Hari Balakrishnan, is already being used by  millions in the U.S.and internationally to record driving data and rates of distraction by city.

The company has already recorded accidents overtime and related that back to the driver’s “score.”

“One of the things that we know is that, if you’re a very badly distracted user, if you’re in the 10 percent most distracted bucket of users, you’re 7 times more likely to have an accident,” he said.

After only 2 weeks of using the app, Madden says the average user has nearly a 30 percent reduction in distracted driving.

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Under a Missouri School of Journalism fellowship, I spent my last college semester in New York City editing and producing videos for Mic, an innovative news startup in One World Trade Center. After late nights of deadlines, finessing video pieces, bonding with coworkers and experimenting with editing techniques, I produced and filmed my own mini-documentary focusing on evolving Mic video strategies.
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