Some time in the not too distant future, cars will drive themselves. And one of the reasons we will favour these robot chauffeurs is that they are inherently safer than human drivers – or so current research shows. Google’s autonomous cars, for example, have a 360 degree field of vision with a wide variety of sensors. They can detect a potential accident and alter their behaviour to avoid it much faster than a mere human can.

Right now, however, self-driving cars are rare, but smartphones are almost ubiquitous. Which is why a South African software developer is looking to the latter rather than the former to improve safety on our roads sooner rather than later.

The idea behind Road Buddy, for so it is called, is that just like all those sensors on a self-driving car it can warn drivers when more vulnerable road users are heading their way, so that you can take appropriate action to avoid a crash. The way it does this is by tracking your phone’s GPS position and that of other Road Buddy users around you, and alerting you when it appears two phones are approaching each other at speed.

Road Buddy is the brain child of Werner van der Westhuizen (pictured above), and in principle it’s a very simple app. Before you set off on a motorbike ride, bicycle or on foot, you switch the app on and let it know how your planning on getting around. Car drivers similarly arm the same app before setting off.

If the drivers’ phone detects someone on foot or two wheels within a five second radius of your car, it triggers an audio warning to take care. And that’s it.

“The application will also adapt to suit a particular area,” van der Westhuizen said, “So that you’ll only get one warning from a group of cyclists… or if you enter a metropol with a lot of pedestrians.”

van der Westhuizen says that even though the app relies on tracking a phone’s position using its GPS , those concerned about online privacy shouldn’t have anything to fear.

“Our cloud management just monitors the type of use reported by the app and where the user is,” says van der Westhuizen, “We don’t store personal information online.”

As writer Cory Doctorow recently pointed out on Boing Boing, however: “There is no known effective method to anonymize location data, and no evidence that it’s meaningfully achievable”. We’ll follow up and find out exactly how Road Buddy aims to keep users’ identities out of its servers – there is a line in the terms and conditions, for example, that allows Road Buddy to display third party services with their own data capture techniques but no guarantee that the app won’t store information about you.

Local logs, however, are kept on the phone and serve to double the app up as both a fitness tracker and a drivers’ log that can be submitted for tax purposes. van der Westhuizen says that it was important to make Road Buddy multifaceted and replace existing apps, in order to encourage current users of fitness smartphone tools to switch. Getting people to keep more than one app running at the same time would have been tough.

As far as cloud processing goes, Road Buddy has the backing of IBM through its Global Entrepreneur Program, which has lent engineering and marketing skills to the firm. It’s also helping to co-ordinate a global launch, although van der Westhuizen says he was keen to release the app in South Africa first, and has done so with the official endorsement of the department of transport. Acting director general of the department Mawethu Vilana was at the launch of Road Buddy in Sandton today, where he said that Road Buddy was just one of several new ideas the department is backing in a drive to reduce road deaths by 50% from their 2010 level by the year 2020.

“Over 50% of current accidents can be avoided,” Vilana said, “This application will help with that.”

The DG also committed to putting 1 300 more traffic cops on the road and embarking on driver education programs, which will involve the release of more data about road safety into the public domain.

South Africa has a disastrous record on road safety, and just under 40 people die every day on our roads. The death rate of 31.9 people per 100 000 population from road accidents is almost 10 times higher than that of the UK. Road safety expert Gary Ronald points out that as men between the ages of 20-40 are by far the most likely to die on the roads, we’re also sacrificing our most economically active citizens in the name of… who knows?

The Road Buddy app, installed and ready to go.
The Road Buddy app, installed and ready to go.

Ronald says that he’s tremendously excited by the potential of Road Buddy to improve driver awareness, although he stresses it’s only part of a solution.

“A growing number of road users have no reference point for how to behave behind the wheel other than buses or taxis,” Ronald says, “We need to change attitude of law enforcement, the attitude of the public and the public attitude to law enforcement.”

There are a few things which could hold Road Buddy back, of course. The main issue is that it relies on as many road users as possible installing the app and keeping it running in the background – a tough job to achieve even with official DoT backing. van der Westhuizen says that he’s talking to car manufacturers about installing the system in new cars, but that will take time. For an app like this to really work, however, it will need to become an industry standard that can be integrated into all new phones and cars.

According to van der Westhuizen, Road Buddy has been in development for seven years and started out as a separate device designed to be worn by pedestrians and cyclists. Future plans expanding the app to Windows and BlackBerry phones – right now it’s just on Apple and Android – and closer integration with IBM’s own Smart Cities analytics suite. It also includes an SOS feature that will send emergency SMSs to predefined numbers if you get into trouble.

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.