New technologies force distracted drivers to put down the phone

Mary Lou Jay

Distracted driving can be especially worrisome for parents of young and inexperienced drivers. They want their teen drivers to have their phones for emergencies but don't want them talking or texting when their focus should be on the road. Once a teen pulls out of the driveway, however, it's hard to enforce a cellphone ban.

Business owners whose employees drive company cars or trucks face a similar dilemma. Until recently, there's been no good way for companies to tell whether their workers were complying with those policies.

New technology that blocks the use of cellphones while a vehicle is in motion could give parents and companies a way to enforce the cellphone ban.

Apps like iZUP, DriveSafe, tXtBlocker and Cellcontrol shut off hand-held cellphones while the car is in motion. T-Mobile recently became the first cellphone carrier to introduce its own service, called DriveSmartPlus.

These apps work only on smartphones and must be downloaded to them. Most use the phone's GPS signal to measure the speed of the vehicle and then disable the cell phone when the vehicle reaches a certain speed (often about 10 miles per hour). At that point, the app shuts down the phone so that it no longer sends or receives most messages. The exception is 911 calls, which the cellphone user can always place.

Although the services prevent texting while the car is moving, most will allow (with the administrator's permission) the use of a hands-free device to send and receive calls. The administrator is the parent or the business owner, who sets up and has password-protected control over the system.

One problem with GPS-based apps is that they shut off cellphone access even when someone is traveling by other means, such as by subway or bus. One company, Cellcontrol, has overcome this problem by using technology that actually links with the car itself to determine whether it's in motion.

Proponents of these shut-off systems say that something must be done to reduce the deadly toll taken by distracted drivers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2009, nearly 5,500 people were killed in crashes that involved distracted driving. And in 2010, the National Safety Council estimated that at least 28 percent of all crashes (1.6 million) were the result of drivers who were texting or talking on cellphones.

The new technology is likely to be welcomed by law enforcement officials. The Governors Highway Safety Association reports that as of March 2011, 30 states had banned texting while driving, while another eight had banned the use of hand-held cellphones.

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