Using Technology To Fix The Texting-While-Driving Problem
On a Wisconsin street, a woman in a white hoodie stands frozen in the act of stepping out of the road and onto the curb, her left hand reaching behind her. As part of a public service announcement, she explains why she's there, as string music slowly plays under her voice.
"I had my brother in my hand, and all of a sudden my hand was empty," Aurie says as a car drives past. Her little brother, 8 years old at the time of the PSA, was left paralyzed after being hit by a car driven by a texting driver.
Movie director Werner Herzog and AT&T made this PSA as an emotional appeal, part of the "It Can Wait" campaign. But emotional appeals only go so far. Where the pleading fades, parents, cities and software companies try to pick up the slack with a technological approach.
A patent from Apple could play a big role in helping teens — and adults — avoid accidents. The proposed feature, which would lock out certain features such as texts and calls, is not the first of its kind. There's DriveAssistT, created in 2008, and TEXTL8R, both developed by Aegis Mobility to block calls and texts. There are other devices that try to make young drivers safer beyond the texting angle, such as by using MyKey, a chip in the car key that you program to limit radio volume or sound a continuous alert if the driver doesn't wear a seatbelt. Drive Pulse tracks the location of the car, as well as things like driving at high speeds or slamming on the brakes.
As NPR's Steve Henn reported last year, there are options:
"Parents today are raising digital natives. Many toddlers are as likely to amuse themselves with a touch screen as a set of blocks. Texts, mobile phones, video games and gadgets have surrounded teens their entire lives.
"Today's parents may not have grown up in a tech-saturated world, but almost every day new technologies come to market that give them more options when it comes to keeping tabs on their kids."
The Apple patent would lock out certain phone functions in one of three ways: by using a motion sensor that knows when the phone is moving at driving speeds; by using a "scenery analyzer" that can tell whether the phone is in a safe place in the car; and a lock-out mechanism that automatically disables things like texting for a period of time.
Attempts by other products to work around looking at a screen have proved more dangerous than texting. In a study by AAA, researcher David Strayer measured the level of distraction of various activities, including listening to the radio (low distraction), to using a speech-to-text device so you are not looking at a screen (high distraction). Replacing texting with this speech-to-text device makes things worse. In an interview with NPR's Melissa Block, Strayer explains.
"People who are talking on a cellphone, either handheld or hands-free, we found that they had a category two level of impairment. [A category five is the highest level of distraction.] That's a significant notch up from what we saw from the undistracted driver.
"But I think one of the things that was a red flag in our study was that when people were starting to send and receive emails with a pure voice-based system — where they can just listen to the messages and then read, reply, delete or whatever, but their hands are on the steering wheel and their eyes are on the road — we found that that was a category three level of impairment."
Even though Apple's patent is not brand new, it could have a greater impact than devices or apps before it, as The Guardian points out:
"As a market leader, Apple could have the power to change the culture behind texting and driving, if it works and is intuitive; that would be a very good step," said Paul Watters, head of motoring policy for the AA [a motoring organization in the U.K.].
"What we find in our research is that there's an addiction here, to texting and using smartphones, it's an addiction that is very hard to break even when in the car — it will take some system to help people break that addiction."
That's what it all comes down to: breaking the addiction. It's hard to ignore the ping of a text message coming in or the pull of work emails piling up when you can check them in seconds. How hard will it be to turn off the new Apple function? How much will it rely on the driver's discipline? Apple could make the difference. In the meantime, emotional appeals and apps that parents use to keep track of their teen drivers will have to do.