Big Brother Video Camera Can Improve Your Driving

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Nov 11, 2013

I’m driving like an idiot, under the steady, red blinking gaze of the DriveCam. In effect, I’m cheating, because while I’m something of a leadfoot I don’t usually floor it at every intersection, or jam on the brakes. I’m doing it to make DriveCam mad.

DriveCam mounted in my Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Its cameras look forward and back. (Jim Motavalli photo)
DriveCam mounted in my Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Its cameras look forward and back. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Since we’re in the middle of a National Security Agency spying crisis, the idea of being under surveillance by a TV camera may not appeal, but the evidence suggests that bad drivers learn from their mistakes when they see them in online video.

DriveCam is a video event recorder, mounted on the windshield of my Toyota Highlander Hybrid. It uses algorithms that clue it in to bad driving, and it records the events, then uploads them to a password-protected company server where events are analyzed by a human team. The drivers and their bosses can see the results. DriveCam uses GPS to note speed limits, and when drivers are exceeding them, and obviously it’s not hard for the analysts to spot cellphone usage. The company’s customers are both fleet owners checking up on their drivers and parents of some 15,000 teens who aren’t content just to monitor the Facebook account.  

Here I am on video, driving badly. That music you hear is Serena Ryder's first album, which I was grooving to on the way to the gym. DriveCam's analysis: "In this example, the video event was not determined to be highly risky (there were no major g-force changes (see graph below), no swerves, near-misses etc.).  Please keep in mind that this was a single event, and typically we are looking for behavioral patterns over time."

According to Julie Cunningham, senior vice president, corporate communications at parent company Lytx, “We’re using sensors to look for patterns of risky behavior, and capturing that on video—rapid acceleration, hard braking.” With teens, the hair-raising distracted driving on view includes putting on makeup at the wheel, turning around to talk to rowdy friends in the back seat, talking on the cellphone and texting, said Cunningham. And they’re doing this knowing the DriveCam is watching them!

Here’s a DriveCam video of a truck driver falling asleep at the wheel and crossing the center line. You can bet he didn't do this twice:

Lytx has 500 commercial and government fleet customers, whose drivers cover 20 billion miles annually. Given the enormous toll taken by traffic accidents—as many as 90 percent of them related to human error and preventable—many of us would benefit from knowing that Big Brother is watching. Some 93 people die in car accidents every day—somebody every 15 minutes. There are 5.3 million reported traffic accidents annually, 34,000 deaths and 2.2 million injuries. Accidents cost us two percent of GDP.

Since companies are paying for the system, they usually coach drivers caught messing up. “We had a teen in Wisconsin who was upset that her family put DriveCam in their car,” said Cunningham. “She didn’t want to be watched. But after seeing the videos, she agreed that it made her a much better driver.”

Sanjay Sinniah, a client account manager at DriveCam, chuckled when I asked him if the software itself could spot a cellphone. "It's not that smart," he said. "But it does know if you've driven over a pothole--it doesn't even send us those events. That's just noise." The company now has more than a million video clips, all showing bad driving behavior.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One