Tech aids can reduce distraction

A sampling of apps and other aids

Consumer Reports magazine: June 2013

Apps such as AT&T’s DriveMode stop incoming texts and calls and send an automatic reply.
Photo: Ryan Hayslip

Some people think that because distracted driving is a problem created by technology, the solution must be technological. That’s the viewpoint of Jeffrey H. Coben, M.D., and Motao Zhu, M.D., Ph.D., of the West Virginia University School of Medicine. In a recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they argue that the best solution to help prevent more deaths is to have vehicle and/or cell-phone manufacturers render a handheld device inoperable whenever it’s in a moving car.

That is one of a number of tech strategies for reducing phone-based distractions. Below is a sampling of the solutions available to help curb this dangerous behavior:

Hands-free aids

Many cars now come with a Bluetooth system built in, so you can wirelessly connect your phone to the car’s audio system. Alternatives include a Bluetooth headset or an aftermarket device (see “Affordable Hands-Free Calling,” May 2013).

Pros: They handle incoming calls easily with the press of a button or a voice command, and some systems read messages aloud and let drivers speak responses.

Cons: Initiating outgoing calls can be distracting, especially if the device doesn’t recognize your command. Some devices have phone-compatibility problems.

Smart-phone apps

They restrict the phone from being used when the app is switched on or when the vehicle is in motion (as detected through the phone’s GPS receiver or Bluetooth). They’re available from major cell-phone carriers, such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon, as well as from independent providers, such as iZup and tXtBlocker.

Pros: All of the apps we’ve tried can call 911, and some are free. Some automatically activate when the car is in motion and, depending on the app, can send automatic replies to incoming texts, e-mail messages, or calls. And some can notify parents if the app is deactivated.

Cons: Monthly costs of $2 to $10 can add up, and use of the phone’s GPS can drain the phone’s battery. Apps can’t tell when a passenger is using the phone instead of the driver, they can be manually turned off, and some don’t work with the iPhone.

Devices connected to the vehicle's diagnostic port

They plug into a connector under the dash and restrict phone use in a way similar to apps.

Pros: They can send an auto-reply to calls and texts, they don’t drain the phone’s battery, and they’re tamperproof because parents set a code to unlock them.

Cons: They can be pricey, ranging from about $90 to $180, plus extra costs for accessories. Each works with only one car, and they aren’t compatible with the iPhone.

Monitoring systems

They track a driver’s behavior and speed with cameras, special phones, and other systems.

Pros: They activate when the vehicle is in motion. All collected information is logged, and some systems allow real-time online tracking. Data reports are available to parents and companies that subscribe.

Cons: Some systems require you to buy a particular phone and pay a monthly fee of about $10. The phones can lose battery power quickly because the GPS is constantly on, and those with cameras and sensors can be used in only one vehicle.

Learn more about staying safe behind the wheel in our guide to distracted driving and teen car safety.

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