Killer App

The long-elusive silver bullet of traffic safety, if you read this press release, has arrived in the form of the … iPhone!

From the same company that produces a “speed trap” detection application for the iPhone, thus decreasing the safety of the road both in terms of speed and distraction, comes this bold claim: ( added another layer to their Speed Trap mapping system today by including traffic accidents and fatalities to enhance their data visualization system. This addition will allow drivers to see where accident black spots and problem areas are. An updated Njection Mobile iPhone application [iTunes] ( that allows drivers to be alerted to these high accident areas is awaiting approval from Apple.

[uh, quick interjection; a good deal of crash blackspots are at intersections, which are typically controlled by traffic lights, and sometimes, because people don’t seem capable of obeying simple traffic signals, red light cameras, which your software will also sniff out — thus potentially increasing the very crash blackspot-ness! How wonderfully intregrated!] has acquired accident data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA – and global weather conditions from (, and coupled this information with Microsoft Virtual Earth ( to produce a unique use of data visualization. This Virtual Earth mash-up not only allows users to view 5 years of accident data collected from the NHTSA based on local weather conditions but to see it in 4-hour blocks updated every hour from the current time. For example, if it is 12PM and a user selects the “4 hour history” radio button, they will be shown a history of accidents that have occurred between 11AM and 3PM based on the local weather conditions.

I realize this is a press release (regurgitated without comment by Fox Business), and not to mention this is still early days for the iPhone — every app is announced with breathtaking excitement, but most will be revealed as useless geegaws, to be marveled at over drinks for fifteen minutes with your friends and then cast into the silicon attic.

But apart from the incredible irony of this company suddenly being concerned with “safety” this is incredibly wrong-headed on several fronts. First, as any number of SatNav crashes have shown, taking drivers eyes and minds off the road, reducing their situational awareness, is not a good idea. Full stop. Rather than scanning some tiny screen to look for time-and-weather coded crash data, one should actually be looking at the actual conditions of the road one is on.

Then, there’s the problem of regression to the mean. A place may be an “accident black spot” for a time, then have no crashes for the next number of years. What are we to do with that information? And, given that the vast majority crashes have driver behavior at their root, not slippery bridge surfaces and the like, presenting crash data as somehow a function of road conditions is disingenuous. And, as always, does highlighting places of greater crash frequency leave one less vigilant at other locations?

The best way the iPhone could contribute to traffic safety in the car — apart from the long-awaited breathalyzer app — is it for it to be turned off.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 1st, 2009 at 8:28 am and is filed under Risk, Traffic safety, Traffic Wonkery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



April 2009

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