When Texting Is a Bad Thing

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In an April 2015 research note, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pointed to 2013 statistics from police reports showing 3,154 people killed and an estimated 424,000 injured in crashes involving distracted drivers -- that's more than eight deaths a day and 48 injuries hourly.

Distracted driving includes a variety of activities, including eating and playing with the radio. However, the major reason for distracted driving is the use of cell phones or other electronic devices. Even beyond deaths and injuries, using cell phones and texting while driving was the cause of at least 1.6 million accidents in 2010, according to the National Safety Council -- or to put it in another way, two and a half accidents per minute. All of this despite texting while driving being illegal for all drivers in 46 states and the District of Columbia, and banned for novice drivers in two states (Missouri, for those younger than 21 years old, and Texas, for those younger than 18). The only two states where texting while driving is not illegal are Arizona and Montana.

Technology Versus Marketability
In a recent article, The New York Times reported that Apple has the technology for automatically stopping iPhone users from texting while driving, but it chooses not to implement it. (In 2014, Apple received a patent for a "lock-out mechanism" that could disable the input, and possibly the reception, of text messages while the user is driving. Motion sensors and phone cameras could identify when a person is in a moving car and sitting in the driver's seat.)

If Apple has this wonderful capability, why wouldn't it automatically include and activate it? A big concern may well be that enabling a restrictive distracted driver capability could put Apple at a competitive disadvantage. If iPhones block users from receiving text messages while driving, but Android devices allow them, might people opt for the less-restrictive phones? Apple is known for its legionary following, but how many users might chose text messaging freedom over brand loyalty?

Voluntary Opt-In
What about offering a way to block text messages voluntarily? Some applications already do this, including AT&T DriveMode. This app will automatically turn on and block incoming text messages when it detects a user is driving more than 15 miles per hour, then turn off when the vehicle has stopped. For parental control of teen driving, the app will send a message when it's turned off or when certain settings are changed. Similarly Verizon offers Safely Go available for download (engages at 25 miles per hour), while Sprint Drive First engages at 10 miles per hour.

The problem with such services is that they are voluntary. Adults may require teenagers to use such apps, but that doesn't mean they'll do the same. The desire to check your smartphone after receiving an incoming text is almost addictive, as some studies show.

Driver Safety as Corporate Mandate?
As individuals and families look into this issue, what about companies? With rising concerns about potential lawsuits, can companies block their employees from texting while driving? Cellcontrol offers a company-wide solution.

Drivers download the Cellcontrol DriveProtect app on their smartphones and place a DriveID device on their windshields behind the rearview mirror. DriveID is a solar-powered, Bluetooth device that automatically places the driver's phone into safe mode (using a proximity locator) when it detects motion. The application also provides reporting on safe driving, noting excessive speed, hard braking, fast acceleration, and other performance indicators. This is helpful information in managing fleet vehicles and drivers.

Getting to a Tipping Point
Again, this is a voluntary and optional solution. What would tip us, as a society, to an automatic solution?

Insurance companies may provide discounts if you install and use an automatic text-disabling device. They have clear financial incentive to provide discounts, given the lower death, injury and accident rates that come with preventing texting and driving. In addition, providing information about safe driving may also lead to lower rates. However, concerns over privacy and state laws need to be addressed.

From a federal government perspective, a law eliminating texting and driving using apps and/or hardware may be looming down the road. It is likely this will follow the same path as vehicle air bags. In the '80s the debate about making air bags mandatory was quite lively. Over time, as technology evolved, prices dropped and public sentiment changed. In 1991, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act mandated air bags in all cars and light trucks by Sept. 1, 1998. The results -- an estimated 2,700 lives saved every year.

Now compare this to the estimated 3,000 plus lives lost every year due to distracted driving. There seems to be a prima facie case to consider mandating the elimination of texting and driving.

Of course, by the time public sentiment and technology evolves to disable texting while driving, it may be a moot issue. Self-driving cars could make texting while driving much ado about nothing -- but, self-driving cars open another, much larger can of worms.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.