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Better Feedback, Better Drivers?

A Colorado company called Cartasite has begun experimenting with a device they call ROVER. ROVER is a little gadget that can be installed in a car and includes a three-dimensional accelerometer, GPS and the ability to send data through cellular networks. The concept is simple; with these sensors, ROVER is able to monitor a motorist’s driving. It records hard breaking, swerving, fast acceleration, speed, fuel consumption and various other readings, which are then sent back to the Cartasite computers, where it can be analyzed.

While for many reasons, this device might not be a perfect judge of driving skills, it is still able to provide something sorely lacking in many drivers’ experience – feedback.

Slate magazine’s Tom Vanderbilt agreed to an arrangement with Cartasite and joined some thousands of Colorado drivers in having a ROVER installed in his car. Unfortunately, the feedback was not immediate. It came several weeks after he participated in this experiment. However he reports that even without any input from ROVER, he was very aware of it in the car with him, monitoring his decisions.

“I began, in fact, to anthropomorphize it a bit; it became “David,” (i.e., Cartasite’s CEO, whom I envisioned as having a window open on his desktop monitoring my progress with day-trader intensity),” wrote Vanderbilt. “When, on I-95 South, a florist’s van changed lanes in front of me without warning, necessitating a firm press on the brake pedal, I thought, ‘David’s going to see that one, but how will he know it was the van’s fault?’”

But it was not until his report came that he actually discovered how he scored by Cartasite’s standards. The Rover had tracked his driving for hard breaking, rapid acceleration, overspeeding, nighttime driving, mpg and time spent idle. Do to poor speed limit data, the system cannot actually compare speed against the posted speed limit, but it still provided interesting insight into Vanderbilt’s driving behavior.

He was in for a pleasant surprise. The outlier in Cartasite’s data, during Vanderbilt’s second week, he was able to score a perfect 100.

Indeed, Vanderbilt was well off the curve of normal drivers in the data Cartasite shared with him. Among the cases he was able to review (names removed for privacy’s sake), he discovered a driver with more than 30 incidents of hard breaking in one hour, and another driver who had driven only 11 miles, but spent seven hours idling.

As a personal injuries attorney with experience dealing with the sometimes tragic aftermath of auto wrecks, I find the potential of this technology incredibly interesting. As Vanderbilt mentions himself in his article, drivers rarely receive any kind of direct feedback on their performance on the road. The rare traffic tickets are an exception to the rule. Many reckless drivers go years without traffic violations or accidents, and the occasional honked horn or shout during rush hour are hardly going to make much of an impression on them. And knowing reckless drivers, the normal reaction to that kind of feedback is anything but than, “How can I improve my driving?”

This kind of advance may be a step toward drivers more self-aware and safer on the road.