Recently we had an opportunity to speak with Russell Henk, the Senior Research Engineer (YDS App & TDS Program Founder) at Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) about You in the Driver Seat (an education-outreach element of the Teens in the Driver Seat® Program)
Please share with us the backstory of what motivated you to create this app.
A Teen Advisory Board has been a key component of the Teens in the Driver Seat® (TDS) Program (www.t-driver.com) for over 15 years. In 2015, that young leadership group (which is an instrumental part of our overall peer-to-peer program to improve transportation safety amongst young people) requested that we develop a smartphone app. Those discussions became the catalyst for this multi-year journey to add an innovative element to our overall safety toolbox for fighting the number one cause of injury and death among young people (25 years and younger) in the United States.
A smartphone for a young person in today's world may as well be another finger or hand -- they are connected to it constantly (both physically and emotionally). As such, the development of an app was (and still is) viewed as a strategic and incredibly valuable way to connect to those members of our society and help increase the awareness and visibility of this important (transportation safety) issue and its related risks.
What features do you hope to roll out to your app in the future?
We are actively working on increasing the complexity with which we detect and address excessive speeding. To accomplish that new feature will add another layer of complexity, but we think it will be worth it. We hope to have that functionality implemented over the next 12 months.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of the creation of this app?
Earlier this year, we concluded that our user base for the app (and associated data) had grown to the point where it was large enough for us to perform a thorough analysis of any impact we might be having with the app. My colleague (and current Co-Manager of this initiative), Christine Yager, conducted that analysis – the results of which indicated that young drivers using the app regularly (10 times or more) drove distracted 20% less than those that did not use the app frequently. That "long-term user" group also had a driving score that was 15% higher/better. These positive changes in driving behavior were found to be statistically significant at the 95% confidence level. The analysis was completed for February 2020 to February 2022 (the core of the pandemic). Over that exact same time period and in stark contrast, a national study (with a sample size in the millions) indicated that distracted driving had increased by 30% in the U.S. during the pandemic. Not a helpful trend by any means, but one that most of us have observed first-hand when driving our nation's roadways the past 2 years.
So, as a long answer to your question of "what has been most rewarding", these net results have been very exciting to see and validated why we started this adventure in the first place. The results to date indicate a 50 basis point improvement compared to "the norm" the past two years, which are extremely rewarding and motivating results for this team (and our app). Connecting all of the dots (with traffic crash data) is not feasible, but suffice it to say that we have met our goal of reducing the probability of traffic crashes and maybe even saved some lives.
If I may, I'd like to also give a quick shout out to two other core team members – Micah Montoya and Mike Vickich – they are our lead programmers and partners in the app development here at Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI). These results and progress made to date would not have been possible without their talent(s) and efforts.
What is the coolest or most innovative feature of your app?
It is hard to pick just one feature that I'd call the coolest, so I will note a few that fit that description. We have put together an app that helps detect and map any distractions or excessive speeding that occur on a trip. A driving score is calculated (and a map provided) for each trip and given to the driver as instant feedback on how they did for that trip. This entails the detection and management of a massive amount of data and was very challenging to accomplish (i.e., much easier said than done). We also provide proactive safe driving tips when inclement weather is detected in the area. While we continue to add features to the app, we believe this current package is pretty innovative/cool (particularly in combination with the extensive rewards program) and has proven to be effective.
What surprised you most in your journey to create this app?
I'd have to say that growing our base of users was more challenging than I had expected. While we continue to make steady progress on that front and are seeing some nice organic growth in downloads and use, I had expected the response to be a bit better/stronger. The more I am learning about the "smartphone app" space, it seems that this sort of challenge is not unusual. It has, nonetheless, required more time and effort than we first anticipated.
Which other mobile apps or technology have inspired you?
I don't recall any particular app that inspired us, but rather the popularity of various awards/rewards programs that exist today. Whether is it airline miles, credit card points, hotel stay reward programs – it seems like everyone enjoys collecting points and rewards. I'd say that was one of the key foundational drivers for our app's design and approach.
Do you have any recommendations or advice for others wanting to create a mobile app?
If you are undertaking a complex smartphone app (i.e., that manages a lot of information and provides dynamic feedback to your users), I recommend you take whatever early budgetary and timeline planning estimates you have developed and then multiply them by three (3). I don't say that to sound negative or discouraging – simply being candid and honest. Your vision and ideas are likely worth the effort, but getting this up and operational was significantly more expensive and time-consuming than we first anticipated – still very much worth it in the end and resulted in a greater appreciation of the work it takes to deploy (and maintain) a good smartphone app. All of that said, don't give up on the dream -- go for it!!
How did you decide which platforms to release your app on and do you plan on releasing your app to other platforms?
The intent (from inception) was to have our app offered on both the Apple iOS and Android platforms. We knew that the majority of our target audience (young people) use i-phones, but we did not want to exclude any smartphone users from our target group. We found the iOS platform approval process to be more stringent, but testing the performance of that version of the app was more straightforward. Thus, the iOS version of the app was ready for public access sooner. The Android platform approval process was a bit easier on the front end, but there is a plethora of “Android phones" on the market. Thoroughly testing the Android phone models and related intricacies was quite a bit more tedious, so it took a few more months before that version was ready for prime time.
How is your app different than the rest of the market? Which unique need does it fill?
The vast majority of apps that have been created to address transportation safety are restrictive or punitive in nature. As an example, there are many apps that simply shut down your phone once your vehicle is in motion in order to prohibit distracted driving. While these do make some sense in certain respects and can be of value, we wanted to do something different.
Consistent with the core philosophy of the entire TDS Program, we took an approach of rewarding good driving behavior as opposed to punishing bad driving habits – hence our slogan (and call to action) “Responsibility has its Rewards®." We developed a multi-faceted incentive system with a variety of rewards and benefits for young drivers that drive safely. They can accrue benefits for themselves personally (e.g., gift cards from popular vendors) and also earn credit for their TDS Program team as part of our annual award program for schools. We believe this (incentive-based) approach is a more effective one and stands a better chance of truly producing a shift in how people think about their driving habits -- ultimately creating a traffic safety culture.
You can view You in the Driver Seat (an education-outreach element of the Teens in the Driver Seat® Program) here
For more information, visit: https://www.t-driver.com/you-in-the-driver-seat-app/