Mobile phones and driving can be a dangerous combination. So it might seem the last thing motorists need is another phone application. But what if the application actually discouraged motorists from using their mobile phones while driving?
A professor at Abu Dhabi University has developed an application called the "Driver Riskometer" that does just that, by tracking information such as distance, speed and time spent on the mobile phone. The application launches automatically and uses a GPS-enabled feature to keep track of kilometres and minutes travelled, the vehicle's top and average speed and the percentage of time spent in different speed ranges.
It also reveals the number of calls made, the time spent on calls, and time spent tapping the phone's keys, whether to check the time, send a text message or search for something on Google. The driver's performance is scored at the end of a journey on a quirky scale of one (very safe) to seven (very risky). "The idea is to give people feedback about their risk on the motorway and get them to enhance their driving," Ashraf Khalil said. "With all the crazy driving you see and all the phone usage and technology people are fond of, you need something like that."
The driver's risk is based on a formula devised by Prof Khalil, who is an assistant professor of computer science at the university's Al Ain campus, and his team. Although the application, which has been developed over four months, is not market-ready, Mr Khalil said he expected it would eventually by uploaded on to mobile phones by motorists striving to improve their driving behaviour. Drivers can check their data for a single journey or for a given day or month. Their overall risk score can increase and decrease as the device reassesses their performance after each trip.
While the application was initially developed for GPS-enabled Nokias, Prof Khalil says that if the research shows it "really motivates" drivers the next step would be to develop similar software for other platforms, such as iPhones. The technology is being tested on a group of 20 drivers for the next two weeks. The next stage is to expand the sample size and duration of the research period. "Behaviour changes you are not going to measure in one week or two," he said.
The application is meant to be a fun way to encourage drivers to improve, with each score being accompanied by a phrase, such as "Don't drive in my neighbourhood" if you rate a six, or "You drive alive" if you rate a three. Suha Glal, Mr Khalil's research assistant on the project and one of the first to use the phone, said she found herself concentrating more on her driving knowing she was being monitored.
"I stop the car and check right away to see where I am," said the 24-year-old Sudanese national. "I want to see what this journey has done to my overall score." A tracking of Ms Glal's first 10 journeys showed she had a risk rating of two, or "You passed the school bus driver test," in Riskometer speak. Her average speed was 47kph, her top speed was 120kph, and she spent 44 per cent of the time going slower than 60kph. She made no calls, but she had a passenger use the keyboard to test the system, and it recorded 27 "key interactions".
Ms Glal said she had installed the application on her brother's phone to show him the risk of chatting on a phone while driving. She said since he started using the application, he was improving his driving behaviour. "The law does not really stop people from texting while they are driving, so I think it is something that should come from the person and this will help them to realise how it is dangerous," she said. The fine for using a hand-held mobile phone in the UAE is Dh200 and four black points on the licence. It is not illegal to use a hands-free phone.
Studies have found that drivers using a mobile phone, whether hand-held or hands-free, are four times as likely to cause a crash as those not on a phone. Texting while driving is even more dangerous. Mr Khalil sees the potential for the application to be used for fleet drivers, giving companies an easy way to monitor whether their drivers are using their phones while driving. John Patrick Hayes, the programme director for the UAE at the Transport Research Laboratory, welcomed the technology for "getting through to drivers personally, telling them they are driving dangerously".
He said, however, he had reservations about a rating system that might give the impression that texting or talking on a phone while driving is more acceptable if it is done in moderation. "Our view on it is using a mobile phone while you are driving is exceptionally dangerous," he said. The issue of influencing driver behaviour will be addressed today at the International Security National Resilience conference at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.