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More than half of Finns make phone calls or read text messages while behind the wheel, reveals a new study by the Finnish Road Safety Council.A research team from the University of Jyväskylä has developed a smartphone app that gives warning if a driver’s use of mobile device is posing a threat to their concentration.

Last Tuesday, the Finnish Road Safety Council published its study revealing that more than half of Finns use their mobile phones while on the road.  Up to a third of drivers also admit to texting behind the wheel.

Despite the Finnish Road Safety Council’s warnings that the risk of a crash grows four-fold as concentration wanes, many drivers pay Facebook or WhatsApp a sneaky visit while steering a car. Researchers at Jyväskylä University have spent over a year developing a smartphone app that aims to keep drivers focussed on traffic.

“We wanted to find a technical solution for a problem that legislative measures, such as the use of hands-free devices or bans on smartphones, have not been able to solve,” says researcher Tuomo Kujala from Jyväskylä University’s Department of Mathematical Information Technology.

“Studies have shown that a lapse in concentration may play a role in up to 80 per cent of road accidents and mobile devices, particularly phones, are the main cause of distraction in traffic.”

VisGuard, the app developed by the research team led by Kujala, is a program that runs in the background in a smartphone and collects data on, for example, location, driving speed and images from the phone’s camera, automatically identifying situations where the driver is using a mobile device while driving a vehicle.

When the driver focuses on the phone’s screen for a prolonged period of time or an object that requires special attention appears on the route, a warning triangle pops up on the screen, guiding the driver’s attention back on the road.

“We are aiming to minimise the risks involved in the use of mobile devices in traffic,” says Kujala.

The app underwent testing on a driving test track, where drivers were requested to perform various task on their phones with the app either on or off.

“In the driving tests, the driver looked at the road 15 per cent more of the time when using the app,” explains Kujala.

Based on the feedback from users, particularly the warnings created on the basis of information on location and environment were useful.

“The app can give advance warning of a zebra crossing, crossroads or a tight bend,” says Kujala.

Kujala admits that, while not designed to encourage the use of smartphone in traffic, the app runs a small risk of doing just that.

“The starting point is that the driver has the overall responsibility. Just as for all other technical solutions, there is a risk that the users’ actions undermine the benefits of the system,” he stresses.

The funding granted by the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation (Tekes) for the development project ran out at the end of March. The research team have set their sights on developing a free version of the app that would be available in the autumn. Currently, the app runs on Android phones.

In the future, the app may come with features that utilise data from the surrounding traffic, measuring safe driving gaps or monitoring changes in weather conditions. The developer believes that the app could be applied to driving tuition and training. Several insurance companies have already expressed interest in the system.

“Insurance companies are shifting to profiling drivers and assessing risks on the basis of driving performance. In the future, drivers may be able to get discounts on their insurance fees if they give permission to collect such data on their driving.”

Annika Rantanen – HS
Niina Woolley – HT
Image: Markku Ulander / Lehtikuva