Driving Apps Are Incompatible With Safe Driving

Transportation apps aimed at drivers are increasingly ubiquitous. There are apps to help people find a parking space, or to allow drivers to report a pile-up on the interstate to other drivers in real time.

Waze, an app that encourages drivers to enter real time data about road conditions, just sold to Google for $1.1 billion. Image: Waze
Waze, an app that encourages drivers to enter real time data about road conditions, just sold to Google for $1.1 billion. Image: Waze

But as Ryan Holeywell at Governing Magazine recently pointed out, these apps pose a serious danger to the public. We know texting and driving is deadly. And the truth is, using a cell phone app is no different. According to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, any number of “secondary activities” that distract from the cognitive task of driving present a serious safety risk.

Holeywell reached out to some safety experts, and the consensus is that using driving apps while driving is a very bad idea. “Our advice for motorists continues to be not to use your cellphone while you’re driving — for any purpose,” says Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

App makers defend their products by saying they can be used hands-free. But that overlooks the actual source of distractedness — it’s our minds, not our hands:

David Strayer, a University of Utah psychology professor who conducted a landmark distracted driving study for AAA last year, says voice commands don’t necessarily improve safety because it’s not just hands removed from the wheel that pose a risk — it’s the mental distraction that comes with focusing on tasks other than driving. Turn-by-turn directions can improve safety, Strayer says, so long as drivers enter the address before they start moving and don’t use the devices while they’re driving. If you try to input any information on the go — whether by voice or by hand — Strayer says, “Watch out.”

According to the National Safety Coalition, use of hands-free devices still involves mental multi-tasking which causes drivers to have “difficulty monitoring their surroundings, seeking and identifying potential hazards, and responding to unexpected situations.”

Right now, however, most state laws regarding distracted driving simply ban texting and driving. And that means apps like Waze — a navigation app that encourages users to provide real-time updates about collisions and other road conditions — are a-ok in the eyes of the law.

  • I’ve been wondering about this, myself. Waze in particular seems like it could be problematic- it follows the “gamification” model of awarding points for providing updates and driving certain distances, and the UI is really cutesy/busy. The standard Google Maps driving directions is much more calm, by contrast.

  • Chris Butler

    Maybe we should consider what the alternatives are to these apps…

    First, for the case of going somewhere you don’t know how to get to, what is better for getting directions than a voice-directed, turn-by-turn app?

    The previous ‘technology’ for this was a paper printout of instructions. Wouldn’t this be worse?

    Second, for the case of going to a regular destination, what is better than getting active voice alerts of slowdowns, accidents, construction, etc.?

    The previous technology was the radio that would not be specific to your own route.

    I agree that the discussion around safety is very important and we should include the alternatives (and their issues with safety) when we have this discussion.

    Full disclosure: I used to work for Waze (discussed above) and Dash Navigation (connected GPS device from a while ago).

  • davistrain

    My gold standard for “why hands-free” communication can still be distracted driving”: If you’re talking with your estranged wife’s divorce lawyer, I don’t want to be in the same ZIP code with you and your car.

  • Chris Butler

    Sure, but does that mean that talking to passengers in the car should be illegal too? It has shown it can be just as distracting as talking on the phone…

    There are always tradeoffs and I would say that while listening to a turn-by-turn directions from a mobile phone (or in dash device) is much safer than using a paper map. It is also much better than constantly stopping to understand the next step that you forgot in your directions (from a paper map or mobile phone).

    It just feels that this argument keeps coming up, but there isn’t a true solution (or offered solutions) that isn’t somewhat distracting other than level 4 autonomous vehicles. Believe me, I can’t wait for the time when people aren’t allowed to drive themselves, but that isn’t next year….

  • davistrain

    Talking with passengers in the car can be distracting, but at least the person in the car can be aware of what the driiver is facing. And if my wife and I are on the road, and we’re coming to a tricky interchange with heavy traffic, I’ll ask her to observe “radio silence” until things smooth out. And she won’t be resentful of being told to “hold the thought”, because she knows that “safety is of first importance.”

  • Waze user

    Waze shuts down if you try and enter information while you are moving– you have to pick “Passenger” to continue.

  • Chris Butler

    Well, I trust you since you because I met you on the internet, but what about everyone else? 😉

  • Tom

    There is nothing keeping the driver from pressing “Passenger” and keeping it their lap instead of hands free. Instead of assuming how people may use the app, why not study the issue first before releasing it.

    If the experts who have done investigations for similar phone usage are saying its extremely risky, then the proper controlled safety studies should be done first in the various ways the apps can be used, including drivers who press “Passenger”. Why wait until the bodies of innocent women and children pedestrians pile up before the issues is studied. It will be too late for those who have died or been maimed. Protecting lives should come first before entertainment, from what is basically a video game in disguise.

    Maybe one alternative to consider would be just concentrating on driving, and driving only.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I’m an active Waze user (though more and more often as a passenger or transit user). While it provides a very useful service, as another commenter pointed out, it does tend to game-ify reporting road hazards, subtly encouraging drivers to get those extra points by adding new reports and confirming others. As for some other pros and cons: I don’t find the mapping interface as intuitive as Google’s (though I suppose that may change as Google takes over), but I love the ability to report to show my family where I am when I’m coming to meet them.

    In terms of solutions, I’d prefer to see Waze focus more on gathering and distributing the passive data they collect from us (e.g. traffic speeds, etc.) instead of rewarding active reporting. For example, it’s not always helpful to know that 5 people have confirmed there’s a vehicle stopped on the shoulder unless it affects the nearby traffic speeds, which their passive reporting traffic speed reporting already handles. Nearby police alerts? Traffic-camera icons? Well, on a public roadway I just try to assume there’s always a cop or camera watching.

  • Nathanael

    “Sure, but does that mean that talking to passengers in the car should be
    illegal too? It has shown it can be just as distracting as talking on
    the phone…”

    Actually, the studies I read said the exact opposite. Apparently talking to someone in the car is distracting, but not as distracting as talking to someone who isn’t physically present. It’s an interesting result — probably says something about the way people’s brains work.

  • w0rking

    Chris, you are right in that the voice-directed navigation and voice alerts are great alternatives to looking at a paper map or swerving last minute to avoid a pothole that you did not know was there. However, as a person who recently tried Waze and uninstalled it within a week, I can honestly say this was one of the most distracting things I have ever had in my car. Constant bubble alerts for things such as bonus points and cartoonish icons were constantly pulling your eyes away from the road and onto the screen. You also completely ignore in your argument made in the article about the temptation to enter data such as accidents, police, and road hazards on the go. Compared with a simple true navigation tool such as Google maps or Apple maps, this app seems like it is targeted toward the candy crush saga crowd. You can’t tell me that the developers at Waze aren’t being directed to create ways to keep users engaged with the screen. After all, it’s all about income generation through advertisement which is why Google was interested in acquiring the company in the first place. It’s difficult to make money off a standard navigation app when your only opportunity to generate revenue is by selling the maps which no one will pay for now, or charging businesses to be listed in the POIs.

  • w0rking

    That’s like saying a 14 year old boy will not look at those pictures on the internet of women because he has to click that he is actually 18 years old. Not a good solution.

  • w0rking

    Thomas, absolutely true. A perfect example is the fact that they show other Wazers on the road. Why do this if it’s all about safe navigation. Yes, I know you can turn many of those things off but I suspect these features on the maps are just what the hardcore users are interested in. Otherwise they’d just use standard Google Maps.


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