Someday, Apple and Google should rig their phones to limit how people can use them while driving. Boston’s new safe-driving app takes a gentler approach, but it also tells us something important: If we want to keep drivers from texting — or tweeting, or Snapchatting, or whatever — it’s a job for tech designers, not legislators.
In Boston, Mayor Martin Walsh has endorsed Vision Zero, an initiative to prevent all motor vehicle fatalities in the city. In that spirit, he announced a competition on Monday called Boston’s Safest Driver. To enter, motorists download a smartphone app, which gives them star ratings if they stay off their phones; drive at reasonable speeds; and brake, accelerate, and turn carefully. Pokemon Go it’s not, but if you’re the type of person who owns a Fitbit, you’ll enjoy the Safest Driver app. (If you like getting awards just for showing up, you’ll like it, too; the app, in my own brief experience, is pretty generous with stars.)
The usual way for government to prevent destructive behavior, such as distracted driving, is to ban it. Massachusetts forbids texting behind the wheel. While these laws make sense as moral statements, police struggle to enforce them. Plus, the driving public is too complicit. Even if you’d never text “you still up?” to an ex while careering down the Interstate, you may still have glanced off the road to look at Google Maps.