U.S. DOT Bus Safety App Is As Clear As A Blind Curve In A Fogbank

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Screen shot of US DOT's SaferBus app.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has released a new app called SaferBus that lets riders review a bus company's safety record. It is packed with useful information, little of it decipherable.

To begin with, a search for popular long distance carrier Bolt Bus calls up nothing. A spokeswoman for DOT says the app does have safety data on Bolt Bus and that you can find it if you happen to know that the company is owned by Greyhound or you have Bolt Bus's 7-digit DOT number.  Otherwise you're out of luck.

On the bright side, a listing for Megabus pops up right away when you type it into the app's search screen. Five safety categories appear, as they do for each carrier monitored by the agency. Click on the first one, Unsafe Driving, and you'll find that the DOT's "intervention threshold" is 50% and that the Megabus "on-road performance" number is 4.5%.

Is that good or bad?

Turns out that's good, which you can discover by reading the first of three footnotes--yes, footnotes--delineating the "percentiles range" of the agency's Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASIC).

Got it?

Tyson Evans, deputy editor for interactive news at The New York Times, gave SaferBus a test drive and then talked about how good apps work. "You have to come up with some kind of headline that says, 'Compared to everyone else, they're doing really well or really poorly,'" he said. "You have to have the context without cluttering it with endlessly footnoted explanations."

Like, say, the five stars found in every Yelp restaurant review--or the other user-friendly ratings on countless consumer websites.

The information on SaferBus is pulled from records kept by The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The spokeswoman said the agency is restrained by regulation from presenting its safety data in a way that clearly compares carriers. “Unfortunately at this point, we can’t rate," she said. "If the rider wants to know good or bad, that’s not where the agency is yet.”

The design of the SaferBus app come from staff at the DOT in collaboration with The Volpe Center, another federal transportation agency. In other words, SaferBus is an in-house government production.

By contrast, the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority does not design its own apps using data such as train and bus schedules. Instead, the authority opens the code to third-party developers, who have created dozens of apps that tend to be user-friendly because, in the world of mobile data, user-friendly makes more money. There are 51 apps and counting in the authority's App Center.

U.S. DOT communications director Candice Tolliver said the agency plans to eventually follow the lead of the NY MTA. "Later this year, the agency will participate in a federal government Challenge program that gives app developers access to the raw data used to make SaferBus an effective safety tool," she said.