By adaptive - October 17th, 2016

Do app makers have a responsibility to make sure their apps are used safely? Susan Kuchinskas reports.

Is playing Pokémon GO dangerous to your health and wellbeing? has been tracking incidents related to the game, and was up to 87 by the end of September. Should you hate the player or the game? The game does seem designed to encourage people to wander around staring at their device screens instead of paying attention to real-world hazards.

A study led by John W. Ayers of San Diego State University analyzed a random sample of tweets that included the words “Pokémon” and some variant of “drive.” They found that 33 percent of the tweets indicated that a driver, passenger or pedestrian was dangerously distracted by the game.

By the way, medical professionals are as guilty as of app distraction as anyone else. According to a survey of cardiac perfusionists – the medical staffers who operate the heart and lung bypass machine during cardiac surgery – 55.6 percent had used a cellphone during cardiac surgery; 49.2 percent had sent text messages; 21 percent checked email; and 3.1 percent read or posted on social media.

Bad encouragement

In what seems like a more egregious case, in April 2016, 19-year-old Christal McGee was arrested and charged with a felony for causing an accident by driving while using Snapchat. She was also sued by the driver she hit, who suffered traumatic brain injury.

McGee was using Snapchat’s speed filter that overlays a photo with the miles per hour that you’re traveling. McGee allegedly was trying to hit 100 MPH. Wentworth Maynard, the injured driver, also is suing Snapchat, claiming that the filter encourages reckless driving.

Lead attorney Michael L. Neff, who is representing Maynard in his suits against McGee and Snapchat, says on his website, “State laws hold that manufacturers are responsible for protecting the public from the risk of harm inherent in a product’s design. The Snapchat miles per hour filter is inherently risky.”

Designing to reduce distraction

How much can and should app developers do to reduce the risk of harm to users? The release of the Pokémon GO Plus device should make it safer to catch critters without getting mugged or falling off a cliff. Instead of staring at your phone, the wearable device lights up and vibrates when a Pokémon is nearby. In its announcement of Pokémon GO Plus, Niantic Labs said, “Now you’ll be able to play and enjoy your walk, run, hike, park trips or visits to the library without having to look at your screen all the time.”

In another move that could be designed to reduce the number of trainers who get mugged or fall off cliffs, Niantic’s August update of the software lowered the game’s “speed limit” – if the phone’s accelerometer shows that the user is traveling faster than 10 MPH, a warning pops up. Clicking “I’m a passenger” –whether or not that’s true -- dismisses it. Niantic did not respond to requests for comment.

But Niantic Labs didn’t invent app distraction. It’s been an acknowledged distraction, especially in terms of app use while driving, for more than a decade.

To combat distracted driving, Verizon, Sprint and AT&T all offer branded apps that will lock out some apps, calls and texts when the car is moving. AT&T DriveMode turns on when the vehicle is moving, but allows access to music and navigation. Sprint Drive First sends calls to voicemail and silences emails and texts when the car reaches 10 miles per hour. Verizon Safely Go lets you pick three people who can call or text you and automatically responds to everyone else. It also lets you choose three apps and provides access to a maximum of three pre-determined apps.

More rewarding

But people still fiddle with their phones while driving. Could incentives be the answer? Drive Beehive and Drive Alive are two apps that offer rewards for safer driving. Drive Beehive is the official app of People against Distracted Driving (PADD).

To use Drive Beehive, released in 2015 by Apis Ventures, drivers choose a friend or relative to pair with as a “sponsor.” The driver opens Beehive when he or she starts a road trip, and the app locks the phone, tracking “safe miles driven.” When the driver has earned enough points for safe miles driven, the sponsor is notified and releases the reward, such as a free coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts or a discount at Sears.

Mike Kellenyi, founder of People against Distracted Driving (PADD), says an incentive is the only way to get people to use driving-safety apps. “Ninety-five percent of the kids I talk to, and many of the adults, say they don’t like apps that shut down the phone,” Kellenyi says. “With Drive Beehive, you get rewarded for doing what you’re supposed to do.”

PADD also launched #JustsayPADD, a partnership with Uber that provides a free ride home (up to $15) for teens who feel unsafe with their drivers.

According to Vince Roth, co-founder of Apis Ventures, the company’s user studies found that teenagers would be willing to drive app-free for 100 miles for as little as one free cup of coffee. Moreover, it found that after one month of using Drive Beehive, people were less likely to text while driving even if they were no longer using the app.

“There definitely should be some type of thing embedded into these apps that make them less of a hazard while being used,” Roth says.

Liability risk

Whether or not app developers have a moral duty to make sure their apps don’t lead users into trouble, could they be legally liable for damages?

Brian Wassom, a partner at the law firm Warner Norcross & Judd who focuses on media law, gives Niantic a passing grade. He points out that, in addition to all those popup warnings, its location database has a margin of error of 40 meters – plenty of room to avoid a cliff while still catching an Arbok.

Beyond that, Wassom says, “There’s legal responsibility, and then there are best practices and common sense. Where that legal line of liability lies is a facts-specific question. It’s always going to be the primary responsibility of the person using the app to mind their own safety.”

Randy Earl, a senior business analyst for Atlantic BT, a digital and business strategy consultancy, points out that no app developer really wants their customers to use apps to the point of distraction. However, how often the app is used and how deep the engagement should be are questions that need to be answered in the early design stages. Atlantic BT typically employs usability testing to determine how an app might be used in the real world.

While the typical goal for an app might be having users focused on it, he says, “Safety is certainly a consideration.” In addition, he sees part of his agency’s responsibility as looking out for the optimum use case for his clients’ customers. “Having customers’ welfare at heart is the best thing for our clients, as well.”

Kellenyi of PADD doesn’t blame app developers for all the distraction, although he does think that car manufacturers, car dealers and telcos should take a firmer stand by not giving consumers the option to drive, talk, text and app. But ultimately, he says, it’s still up to individuals to do the safe thing. He says, “No one is forcing you to play Pokémon while you drive. People think they’re invincible and can multitask -- and that’s why people are dying.”

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