Can cell phones prevent distracted driving?

The National Transportation Safety Board is going up against a cultural wave of mobile computing in its call for all 50 states to enact laws banning drivers from using cell phones and other electronic devices even if their devices are hands-free.

And it’s asking makers of mobile devices to help by adding features that would prevent drivers from talking, texting or otherwise using their devices.

NTSB’s proposal includes a pitch to CTIA and the Consumer Electronics Association to “encourage the development of technology features that disable the functions of portable electronic devices within reach of the driver when a vehicle is in motion.”

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The proposal also recommends that features allow use during emergencies and are capable of identifying where someone is sitting in a car, in order to allow device use by passengers.

Can device-makers deliver?

There already are apps available that can do this to varying degrees. The question could be whether device-makers would install them by default, whether they can be made to work automatically, and whether they can still allow for emergency and passenger use.

Many of the current products are aimed at companies and other organizations for managing their fleets of commercial vehicles, or for parents managing their teenagers’ use while driving.

CellControl, for example, is designed to be a fleet management tool, linking a phone to a specific vehicle (being installed on both) and blocking the ability to text while the vehicle is in motion. It can connect with several phones in a vehicle but wouldn’t necessarily prevent passengers from using their phones. It also wouldn’t prevent the driver from using a second phone.

ZoomSafer’s software uses a phone’s Global Positioning System receiver to detect when it’s in motion (faster than 5 or 10 mph) and can be preset, on a Web page account, to block texts, e-mails, Web browsing or phone calls.

But like other apps that rely on GPS signals to activate, ZoomSafer doesn’t differentiate between drivers and passengers, unless you go to your account page ahead of time and set up a time for making calls while in motion, so it can shut off when you’re riding in a car, bus, train or plane.

An app such as tXtBlocker allows passengers to unblock the phones by solving a puzzle, although it would seem a driver could do that, too. In catering to the parent/boss appeal, tXtBlocker also allows the administrator to track the cell phone.

Another app, iZup, turns off essentially all functions of a phone when it’s in motion and for several minutes after it has stopped. Otherwise it allows only calls to 911 and a couple other preset numbers. Only the administrator can unblock the phone.

At the moment, the available apps can significantly reduce distractions from cell phones, although they all have limitations — and they all require the consent of the user in one way or another.

Even if device-makers comply, NTSB still faces the task of changing users' attitudes, which, in some cases, haven’t changed much even in states that have fairly strict laws.

Most states have some form of regulations on using cell phones while driving, although several limit restrictions to novice drivers and school bus drivers. Thirty-five states, plus the District of Columbia and Guam, ban texting while driving, but only nine ban handheld calling use for all drivers. No state bans all cell phone use, including hands-free, for all drivers, which is what NTSB is proposing.

The Governors Highway Safety Association offers a chart of current laws on its website.

NTSB marshaled plenty of statistics in making its proposal, citing various studies that concluded: Distracted driving played a part in an estimated 3,092 highway deaths in 2010; drivers using cell phones fail to see up to 50 percent of the information in front of them; and someone using a cell phone when driving is four times more likely to have a crash that will result in going to the hospital.

It also presented statistics that show how common distracted driving is, which could also underscore the difficulty of changing motorists' habits, even if bans and blocking mechanisms are in place.

A study by AAA Mid-Atlantic, for instance, found that more than half of the approximately 210,000 individuals who drive on the Capital Beltway around Washington. D.C., every day do so while distracted by cell phones.

Another study found that, in a typical daytime moment in 2010, 5 percent of drivers (in 660,000 vehicles) were using a handheld cell phone.

And a national survey by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 69 percent of drivers reported having talked on their cell phones while driving in the past 30 days, and 24 percent admitted to texting or e-mailing while driving.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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