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Status Report, Vol. 45, No. 2 | SPECIAL ISSUE: PHONING WHILE DRIVING | February 27, 2010 Subscribe

High-tech options to curb distraction

When it comes to distracted driving, technology is part of the problem, but it also could be part of a solution that doesn't rely on drivers to hang up their phones or police officers to enforce cellphone and texting bans.

"Distracted driving is bigger than cellphone calls and texting, and we may need a bigger remedy," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "Promising approaches include assistance systems that alert drivers to impending danger. Preventing drivers from using phones when they are out on the road may help, too."

Automakers are rolling out crash avoidance systems that warn drivers when they are not paying attention. Systems like lane-departure warning and forward-collision warning promise to prevent many kinds of distracted driving crashes, not just those that result from cellphone use (see Status Report special issue: crash avoidance features, April 17, 2008). But this isn't a quick fix. Most new vehicles don't have crash avoidance features, and it will take some time before the systems are in wide use as newer vehicles supplant older ones.

For cellphone-specific distractions, several blocking technologies are available right now, and more are on the way. They are designed to block or limit driver cellphone communications while a car is in motion. Most can be set up so drivers can always phone a family member or other prespecified contact, and passengers still get to use their phones even if drivers' are blocked. Calls to 911 and other emergency numbers aren't prohibited. Companies mainly market these technologies to parents of teen drivers and business and fleet owners to keep tabs on employees. Costs range from about $35 to $200 a year, including monthly service fees. Some companies offer free trials.

Current blocking software is designed for GPS-capable smart phones such as Androids or BlackBerrys. Software for iPhones is in the works but not yet available. Once the software detects through GPS that a vehicle is moving faster than a trigger speed (15 mph, for example), the blocking technology kicks in. Systems like iZUP and ZoomSafer block outgoing calls and texts, send incoming calls to voicemail and hold incoming texts and emails until vehicles stop. ZoomSafer also can send auto replies via Facebook, Twitter, or email that a person is driving. Another service, Textecution, blocks text messages in a moving vehicle and is currently available only for Androids. ZoomSafer allows phone users to enter a password to override the system when they ride as passengers, while iZUP and Textecution require permission from a system administrator such as a parent or fleet manager to do so.

CellControl, Guardian Angel MP, and others combine blocking software for phones with a small device that plugs into a vehicle's onboard computer. These units use Bluetooth to transmit speed and other data to a driver's phone. System administrators can customize settings to block any or all calls, texts, and emails once the car tops a set speed. Passenger phones aren't affected. Like iZUP and Textecution, drivers need administrator permission to override.

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