Tech Life: Curbing driver distractions

Cellcontrol plugs into a vehicle's onboard diagnostics port and lets users limit the use of devices while the vehicle is in motion.
Cellcontrol plugs into a vehicle's onboard diagnostics port and lets users limit the use of devices while the vehicle is in motion.
Posted: June 08, 2012

The risks of distracted driving are probably as old as the chariot, and as familiar to generations of auto owners as radios, lunch-on-the-go, and screaming kids.

But there's little doubt that today's risks have been amplified by technology — especially by wireless calls and texting. And while lawmakers push for legal solutions, such as Pennsylvania's new ban on texting while driving, entrepreneurs have focused on the idea that technology can help solve a problem it helped create.

Protecting drivers (and their potential victims) is a busy space for innovation, and for good reason.

Although traffic deaths are at their lowest level in decades, crashes still killed nearly 33,000 people in 2010.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that about 3,100 of those deaths — nearly 1 in 10 — were linked to distraction. Other studies estimate a fraction closer to 1 in 6.

Since distraction is hard to pin down after a crash, such studies probably understate its role, says Russ Rader, of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, who calls distracted driving "an epidemic on the roads."

What can technology do?

Some high-end cars come with systems that counteract the effects of driver error — whether caused by distraction, drinking, or fatigue — by triggering warnings when a vehicle drifts into the next lane or closes in on another car, or even by taking corrective action. Highest-tech honors go to Google's ballyhooed driverless car, still years or decades away from a highway near you.

More common but less useful are devices, including Apple's Siri and a slew of smartphone apps, that enable drivers to control their phones with speech. Although texting with your hands while driving is probably the ultimate in foolhardiness — you're taking not only your mind off the road but your eyes, too — studies suggest that hands-free calling is of little or no value in reducing accidents. Short of not looking at the road, mental distraction is the main risk.

Here's a look at two products that aim to limit that mental distraction with systems that can block wireless-phone use, restrict it, or send warnings when it occurs — not just to the caller or texter, but to a parent or employer.

Cellcontrol. Sold online and through dealers such as Berwyn's Lifecycle Mobile, Cellcontrol is a device that limits phone usage while a car is moving. But instead of relying on the GPS chip that most smartphones now include — the approach taken by many apps — Cellcontrol uses the car's own electronics to identify motion.

The key is its "Trigger," which plugs into a car's onboard diagnostics port, inside the passenger compartment. A variation fits into a similar port on trucks.

With a companion app installed on a mobile device, the Cellcontrol's owner — perhaps Mom or the boss — can set rules that govern its use when the vehicle is moving.

"We give you the tools to create your own policy," says Chuck Cox, senior vice president at the Baton Rouge, La., company. A parent or employer can allow only hands-free calling, or calls but no texts, or incoming calls only. The system also includes a "white list" function, which can limit connections to certain numbers. And it can control e-mail, Web use, and apps the same way.

Cox says one fleet user reported a 42 percent drop in accidents by limiting employees to hands-free calling. "The safety manager knew that all these little fender-benders were caused by people using their phones," he says.

He says one advantage of using the car's electronics port is that the system doesn't generate false positives when a phone user rides in another vehicle.

Cellcontrol is sold bundled with the phone software, typically for $125 for the first year, and $85 to $100 each year after. One drawback: The company is still waiting for Apple's approval, so the app isn't yet available for iPhones.

SecuraFone. SecuraTrac is a Los Angeles company that makes personal emergency-response devices aimed at the elderly. With its SecuraFone mobile app, it offers many of the same tools to parents and employers who want to limit risks. For now, its full functions — including disabling texting at speeds above 5 m.p.h. — are available only on the Android platform, where it sells for $8.99 a month.

Robert Tomlinson, sales director at SecuraTrac, says the app's advantage is its versatility as both a safety and monitoring device. Parents can use its "geo-fencing" function to limit where a teenager is allowed to travel, and get alerts when the limits are violated. They can even keep watch over a vehicle's speed.

To address false positives when a child is a passenger, SecuraFone can send a query to a parent, who can allow texting for a certain number of minutes. If there's no response, the kid just has to wait.

There are worse problems — as too many parents discover the tragic way.

Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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