Public Safety & Justice

Can Rewards for Not Texting and Driving Break the Habit?

We'll soon find out as high school students in Georgia test a new award-winning app to reduce distracted driving.
by | May 16, 2017
(AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

Last September, a University of Georgia (UGA) student was struck and killed as she cycled down an Athens road with two friends. The driver was later found to be under the influence of a cocktail of drugs at the time of the accident. She was reaching for her ringing cellphone when her car veered out of the lane and plowed into the trio of cyclists.

That incident kept coming up between a group of students sitting down to discuss ideas for the National Public Policy Challenge, which is hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government and Governing. Their focus, however, wasn't on the fact that the driver was impaired but on the fact that a reach for a phone -- something most drivers are guilty of doing at some point -- ended someone’s life.

From those conversations came TurnKey, a program that uses and updates an existing app to encourage teens to avoid using their phones while driving. The idea eventually won first place at the national competition in March, and the team received $10,000 to roll it out this fall.

“[Unlike drunk driving], texting and driving isn’t something that has really been addressed as a public safety issue. We wanted to get on the forefront of that,” says Laura Pontari, one of the UGA graduate students behind the proposal.

TurnKey will work like this: Students at high schools in Athens-Clarke County will be given access to a specialized version of an app called JoyRyde, which awards drivers points for every mile they’re on the road without touching their cellphone. To take JoyRyde further, the UGA students got local businesses on board to give students prizes -- such as free ice cream or coffee -- for accruing a certain number of points. Students will also receive notifications on their phones to nudge them into using the app. One Friday, for example, they might get a notification that says “80 percent of your classmates are driving safely this weekend!” Students will also be assembled into teams by grade and, when the program expands, by high school, to foster friendly competition and further encourage use of the app.

“Our intervention is about using the existing technology of the app in conjunction with behavioral science in order to encourage teens to drive safely,” says Pontari.

It’s well-known by behavioral scientists that rewards work better to change behavior than punishments. Because of that, giving students an incentive to drive safely should be a more effective social intervention than simply reminding them of the risks associated with distracted driving or giving them a ticket when they’re caught, says Pontari.

After TurnKey's debut this fall, the team will begin to assess the effectiveness of the program via user data provided to them by the app company and accident reports from the Athens-Clarke County Police Department. They’re hoping to eventually see at least a 10 percent reduction in accidents due to distracted driving -- and perhaps a reduction in fatalities, too.

That kind of result could be a boon to new projects like this around the country, considering the abject failure of laws against texting and driving, which have cropped up in 46 states. Despite that widespread implementation, traffic fatalities increased nationwide for the first time in three decades in 2015, and experts pointed to distracted driving as the culprit. If TurnKey has even a modest effect on rates of distracted driving among students in Athens-Clarke, the implications could be significant.

“We want to serve as a model for other places,” says Pontari. “We would hope to see something like this rolled out all over the country.”

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