The beeps, buzzes, and funky sounds that your cell phone emits when it receives a call or text can be tempting to answer while driving. But those distractions and others led to more than 3,300 deaths and 416,000 injuries in 2012.
Many drivers have the discipline to ignore those invitations. But if you'd like some help (or want to help someone else) and you're an Android phone user, you can take advantage of free smart-phone apps from the major carriers that block unwanted calls and texts. The apps can also send an automatic reply to texts that let senders know that you're driving. AT&T also provides a BlackBerry version. And each app has an onscreen button to call 911.
To check out the benefits and shortcomings, we downloaded AT&T's DriveMode, Sprint's Drive First, and Verizon's Safely Go, and put them through their paces on a Samsung Galaxy S3.
What it does: DriveMode can be set to automatically turn on when it senses that the vehicle has reached about 25 mph. Its "allow list" lets you choose five contacts who can call you without being blocked and vice versa, whether or not the phone is connected to the car via Bluetooth for hands-free use. Navigation and music are the only apps that can be used while driving, but you still have to touch the screen to choose a song, adding a degree of distraction.
What we found: DriveMode worked well in our evaluation and was easy to set up. We did find some variation in how quickly it activated, so give it a few minutes after you reach 25 mph for it to kick in. Similarly, after the car stopped, it took about 5 minutes for the app to deactivate. That helps to prevent using the phone at traffic lights, but it felt too long for practical use.
What it does: Drive First automatically turns on and locks the phone when the car reaches 10 mph. Five contacts can ring through, and you can access up to three apps. In hands-free mode while using Bluetooth, you can call out to anyone. Sprint also has a website that allows a person (such as a parent) to monitor the phone to tell whether the app has been deactivated.
What we found: Setup involves installing two apps and logging in with a phone number and password, which took a while. We liked the online component and the ability to monitor the use of the app. There's a long list of apps you can use while driving, something not available with the AT&T app. We selected the messaging app as one of the three and were able to receive and send texts that way, which defeats the purpose. Drive First might take a few minutes to activate after reaching 10 mph, and it took about 2 minutes to deactivate after stopping.
What it does: Unlike the AT&T and Sprint apps, this one has to be manually activated every time a driver gets in the car. It allows calls from three "VIP" contacts to get through unblocked. It also lets you use three apps while driving, letting you choose from almost any app on the phone.
What we found: There are too many steps to activate the app, and it takes discipline to remember to turn it on every time you get in the car. As with Sprint's Drive First, when we chose the message app as one of our three permitted ones, all texts were accessible. We also added the game app to the allowed list, and our testers were able to play while driving around the track, which is another clear shortcoming. In addition, when using the phone in hands-free mode via Bluetooth, all calls can ring through.
Bottom line. These apps are a step in the right direction, but they need further development to make them more effective. We'd like to see all of them automatically turn on at 10 mph and have an automatic reply that responds to texts and phone calls. They should also have similar functionality whether or not the phone is linked through Bluetooth, reasonably quick deactivation when the cars stops, a website for monitoring the app's usage, and limited usable apps while driving (just navigation and music). That would make them inviting to use while helping drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.