Back when most of us were still using flip phones, MIT professor Hari Balakrishnan realized mobile technology – with its built in GPS and gyroscopes -  offered insight into the way people drive.    As phones became both more central to our lives, two things soon became apparent:   they were creating a distraction for drivers and it didn’t necessarily have to be that way.

 “We had this idea that we could use smart phones to actually make people better drivers,” said Balakrishnan.

Today he runs a Kendall Square company called Cambridge Mobile Telematics.    His latest project is a mobile app he developed for the city of Boston called “Boston’s Safest Driver”.

 “What we’re measuring are factors that are correlated with or, in fact, cause traffic crashes,” he said, as he scrolled through the app on his mobile phone.   Every time he gets behind the wheel, it measures speed, how hard he hits the brakes, how quickly he takes a turn and if he uses his phone.  Then it calculates a score out of possible 100 points.

So 92-point-five is my score,” said Balakrishnan.  “I tell my family and friends the reason I have such a low score is, for research purposes, I end up performing some harsh maneuvers.”

Balakrishnan says providing objective information makes driver more self-aware and often more careful.  Another thing that can change driving behavior:   incentives.   Boston’s Safest Driver app comes with the chance to win cash.    Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s office will award cash prizes to the top scorers living both in the city and outside of it.  

 Janelle Knespel lives in Newton and downloaded the app out of curiosity.  She now regularly checks her score and how she ranks among her fellow drivers.

“I’m number in Newton,” said Knespel, checking her phone.  The app has made her more conscientious. Plus, she likes competing against her husband.  “He downloaded the app and right away he’s like ten points less than I am.”

The Boston Safe Drive app is similar to one Balakrishnan developed for insurance companies.  It’s used around the world.   His research shows that when it comes to influencing how we drive - a carrot is better than a stick.    The possibility of winning a contest, or even getting a score on how we drive, actually makes us better drivers.

 “We find that, with people using this application, the usage of the phone drops by 35 percent with two weeks.  In fact, that’s what’s happening in the Boston Safest Driver application.  We’re finding that of the top quarter of good drivers in the program, their usage of the phone drops 35 percent,” said Balakrishnan. “It’s changing behavior”.

Boston’s Safest Driver contest runs through December 3.