Can technology prevent distracted driving?

Consumer Reports News: June 14, 2012 03:08 PM

Distracted driving is an issue that has been at the forefront of national driver safety efforts since Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood made it his mission to stop the dangerous behavior. Currently, 39 states, plus the District of Columbia, ban texting and 10 states and Washington, D.C., prohibit hand-held cell phone use. We all are aware of the dangers of driving distracted; it is attributed to causing over 3,000 deaths in 2010. While it remains a challenge for drivers to put the phone down, can technology help curb the behavior?

I am speaking at the annual Lifesavers Conference on Highway Safety Priorities in Orlando, Florida, today to discuss how can engineering and technology prevent distracted driving. There are a number of apps and products available to help drivers stop cell phone use. Below are the various types available and the pros and cons of each:

1. Hands-free aids.
These are designed to keep drivers' hands on the wheel and eyes on the road by acting as a speaker phone. Some attach to the windshield visor. The best ones we've seen are the built-in systems from the car manufacturers that include steering wheel controls and large displays for previous calls. We also like it when the system automatically mutes the radio.
Pros: They handle incoming calls easily with the press of a button or with voice. These devices enable messages to be read aloud and drivers can speak responses (with an additional app). These products are movable between vehicles.
Cons: The voice recognition doesn't always work well. Speaking can cause cognitive distraction; your eyes are on the road, but your mind is elsewhere. Initiating outgoing calls is distracting especially if the device doesn't recognize your command. There can be some phone compatibility problems, and some systems provide no way to respond to texts by voice.

2. Software using GPS or Bluetooth to determine when a vehicle is in motion.
These are apps you can download or are available through your cell-phone carrier. Some examples include Zoomsafer, iZup, and PhoneGuard. AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile offer these type of services.
Pros: All such apps we've tried can call 911 and some are free (AT&T). They automatically activate when driving and can send auto replies to incoming calls and texts. Plus, parents can be notified if it's overridden.
Cons: Monthly costs add up (between $3 to $6 a month). The use of the phone GPS to track speed drains the cell phone battery. Teens can easily override the app, and it can't distinguish between the driver and passenger. Most don't work with iPhones and calls can still come through Bluetooth and allow key contacts to phone in.

3. Devices that connect with vehicle onboard diagnostics.
These are devices that plug into the vehicle's OBD-II port in the driver-side foot well.
Pros: The device stops phone use when the car is engaged and sends an auto reply to calls and texts. The product is tamper proof, as parents set a code to unlock. There is a one-time fee to purchase, and it doesn't drain the battery. Passengers can use their own phone as it only affects the driver's phone.
Cons: It can be pricey, ranging from $70 to $130 for the device, plus extra costs for the accessories. It can only work with one car and doesn't work with the iPhone.

4. Detection, jamming, and monitoring sensors.
These can be cameras, special cell phones, or other detection systems to monitor driving behavior.
Pros: These systems activate when vehicle is in motion and passively monitor driving behavior and speed. All the information collected is logged, and some solutions allow real-time tracking online. Data reports are available to parents and companies who subscribe to the service. Feedback can help improve inexperienced driver skills.
Cons: Some systems require you to buy a specific phone and pay a monthly fee. The phones can lose battery power quickly since the GPS is constantly on. Those with cameras and sensors installed in a car won't work if you change vehicles.

The bottom line

Basically all of the apps/products we tried work as they are supposed to. They are primarily geared to teen drivers with parental monitoring. Battery drain is top complaint; you may need to charge the phone while driving. There are compatibility issues as most solutions work with Android and Blackberry, but not iPhone, and only on Internet-ready phones. In our experience, voice recognition is not perfect and could cause more distraction to fix voice errors. Plus, some apps send text alerts to parents and can track location, which can be big-brother-like and distracting.

These are just some of the available technology solutions, but the best (and most affordable) way to prevent distracted driving is to use electronics sensibly. Do searches, set destinations, and send messages when you're parked safely off the road and keep your full attention on the task at hand while driving.

The above solutions are mainly aimed at preventing teens from using their phones while driving, but as a parent—even when your kids are young—you must set an example to your teens. If you do it, they will do it!

See our special section on distracted driving. Plus, download our pamphlet for parents of teen drivers.

Government unveils blueprint for curbing distracted driving, announces new pilot programs
Survey shows distracted young drivers engage in risky behavior behind the wheel
Teens unlikely to speak up against distracted drivers

Liza Barth

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