By Martin Hiscox, CEO of Masternaut

There’s a bit of a driverless car ‘Space Race’ on at the moment, with the likes of Google, Audi, Volvo, BMW all working hard to develop and demonstrate driverless cars in action.

Yes, it’s great to future-gaze, but that’s exactly what we’re looking at — the far-off future. Yes, there’s be spin offs and it’s helping to support new driver assisted safety technologies, but there are many other aspects to overcome before they become a reality. Considerations such as urban planning and deciding who takes the blame in the event of a driverless car being involved in an accident need to be addressed first.

We could be looking at 20-plus years before driverless cars become a mainstream reality on UK roads. In that time, at today’s rates, there will be more than 35,000 fatalities and over 460,000 people seriously injured. Also, there will be more than 2,300 cycle deaths — which could be worse still if the rate of cyclists on the road continues to rise.

Government figures may show slight improvement in road safety, but the numbers are still galling. So, shouldn’t more effort be made about improving road safety using today’s technology, rather than what will only be a reality in many years’ time?

Assisted driving technologies are being installed in some vehicles today, such as automated braking and parking assistance. But we should also be focusing on driver behaviour. Whether you’re looking at consumers or commercial fleets, telematics is an under-utilised technology.

Telematics has evolved from being a vehicle tracking application to being a means of helping businesses to lower the cost of deploying their fleets, largely by improving fuel efficiency. However, the road safety benefits shouldn’t be overlooked and are, in a sense, more important.

The first misconception to get over is that to make roads safer it’s not about reducing the speed that people are driving at. Yes, speed matters, but there’s so much more to the story.

Think about the last time you saw dangerous driving on the motorway or around town. It’s not just speed you notice, but reckless, aggressive driving. Drivers tailgating you, slamming on brakes, taking corners too fast and so on.

At Masternaut we believe that in order to improve driver safety, you need to look at these “driver events” that indicate dangerous driving. We record and analyse driver events such as speed, acceleration, braking and RPM (and idling, but more for fuel efficiency) to get a picture of a driver’s style.

In a business environment, capturing this information about drivers builds up a picture of who is driving safely and who isn’t. Weightings can be assigned to driver events to create a score for each driver, so that the drivers that need attention can be highlighted and addressed in two ways.

Firstly, a device can be installed to the vehicle that alerts a driver with a beep when they exceed the threshold for an event — and remember, we’re not just talking about speeding here. Secondly, looking at the reports of driver events, fleet managers can identify which drivers they want to put through driver safety training. This can all be monitored on an ongoing basis to ensure that safety improvements are sustained.

Of course, what we’re talking about here is helping professionals drive more safely, but telematics has an application in the consumer market too. While we are working with a number of insurance companies on a commercial driving basis, we’re still surprised that it hasn’t taken off so far. Perhaps there isn’t enough of an incentive in terms of reducing the cost of premiums?

I accept that telematics is just one part of the picture to make roads safer. I note that the Government has recently announced that it is increasing spot fines for offences, such as lane hogging or using a mobile phone whilst driving. Many road users doubt that this will be an especially effective deterrent. A recent poll of 3,000 drivers by Auto Trader found that 60% reckoned the new careless-driving fines would make absolutely no impact on road safety.

In my opinion, to improve driver safety, two things need to happen. You need to capture information about driving practices and be in a position to action them, which is what telematics is able to address. The second thing is to enable social pressures to change people’s habits. If you look at the success of the introduction of seatbelts, it wasn’t spot fines that made people ‘belt up’ but people wanting to conform to social norms, largely promoted through television advertising. So, we should be celebrating safe driving more, whether it’s in a commercial or personal basis.