Texting Bans Aren't Stopping Crashes—But Smart Cars Might

Where the law comes up short in curbing the distracted driving trend, technology may step in and offer a solution to the problem of its own making.

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Jun 9 2014, 5:10pm
Image: Apple CarPlay

To stem the rising tide of car crashes caused by smartphone distractions, all 50 US states have passed laws banning texting while driving; in all but five states it's a primary offense, meaning a cop can pull you over just for thumbing your phone at a stoplight. Unfortunately, those bans aren't doing anything to stop the rise of text-related car accidents.

Sure, the effectiveness varies state-to-state, and depends on how stringent the particular rule is (a New Jersey law holds the texter liable just for messaging someone they know to be driving). But such bans are notoriously hard to enforce, and penalties often not strict enough to deter the habit. Hell, even the Mayor of Oakland got busted texting while driving this month, and yet last night got into a minor accident that may have been caused by tinkering on her phone.

Now considered even more dangerous than driving drunk, texting behind the wheel is an issue getting a lot of attention from governments and public safety agencies, with many folks pushing for stricter laws and greater enforcement. But where the law comes up short in curbing the distracted driving trend, technology may step in and offer a solution to the problem of its own making.

Going along with the prohibitive approach, there are a host of apps that block incoming messages or distracting alerts on your phone when you're driving, mainly geared toward parents with tech-addicted teens. In one Ford smart car design, the vehicle itself senses when the driver is stressed or distracted and locks your phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode. An recent Apple patent describes technology that would disable texting while you're driving. 

Taking another tack, so-called connected cars could potentially prevent texting while driving is by making the practice obsolete. It seems likely: As cars get smarter, ever-more computerized, and app-ready, relying on your phone to send a message from the driver’s seat could become a thing of the past.

Many newer auto models already have some kind of in-car communication system built in that syncs with your phone and is controlled either by voice commands or with buttons on the steering wheel so you can keep your eyes on the road. Over in Silicon Valley, Apple announced its Eyes Free feature couple years back, which relies heavily on Siri for voice-controlled safer messaging.

Last year Apple came out with CarPlay, which brings iOS to the vehicle dashboard. The idea behind the features, which several major automakers are reportedly adopting, is that Siri sends, reads, replies to text messages while you’re driving so you can pay attention to the road. Apple rolled the technology out for a little demo at the Worldwide Developers Conference last week. 

Granted, hands-free technology isn't a panacea for the dangers of distracted driving. Last year a study found that voice-activated messaging wasn't any less dangerous than typing texts out with your hands while navigating a vehicle. And glancing over to the dashboard to read an incoming message isn’t really ideal either. 

Meanwhile, it's rumored that Google's developing a similar, Knight Rider-reminiscent system called Project KITT, which the company may reveal at this month's I/O conference. According to Android Police, "Google wants to provide a minimal, sparse interface for carrying out searches and other actions while driving, biking, or doing other things that require your concentration, in order to make things super easy while also avoiding any distraction."

Frankly, I'm surprised better smartphone-car integration hasn't happened already. It a world where cars can drive themselves it seems quite antiquated to have to fumble for your phone in the center console to precariously type out "running late" while swerving at 70 mph on the highway.

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