I made a plea recently for smartphones that fight harder against bad driving behavior.
I believe phones can do more, out of the box, to know when we are driving, change notification behavior to help us ignore our worst habits. There are, however, some apps and some phones that offer some defense against the world wanting to reach you while you're moving very fast.
Here are some of the apps and tools I would recommend trying out if you want to try making your phone conscious of your driving.
Agent (free for Android 4.0+)
The just-released Agent app is really a few different "agents" that fix up different aspects of your phone. One of the most helpful to my mind is the Driving agent. It automatically senses when you are driving, and can then silence, auto-reply, and (or alternately) read messages out loud and prompt you to respond with your voice.
You set up Agent with the Bluetooth name of your car, or let it use motion detection to notice when you are moving at car speeds. You can configure Agent to set your phone to either complete silence or vibrations, to read text messages and ask you to respond (English only for the moment). Alternately, or in combination, you can have Agent automatically reply to callers or texters with a bit of text about how you're driving. It's one short page of options, and it might just make you feel like you upgraded your phone and car at the same time.
Motorola Assist (Motorola Droid Ultra/Mini/Maxx & Moto X only)
More than one commenter, friend, and Twitter correspondent noted that the kinds of things I wanted a phone to do were already done by one phone: the Moto X. The software that powers that phone's "know when I'm driving, respond in kind and be quiet" powers, Motorola Assist, is also available for a few other Motorola phones.
Siri (iPhone 4S and later)
An iPhone will not automatically detect that you are driving, and it will not, by default, auto-respond or read your messages. But if you notice that a message came in, or missed a call, you can do like Jesse Thomson does and ask your phone assistant, Siri, what is up:
@kevinpurdy I just use Siri through my car’s bluetooth system. “Read Messages” “Tell Julia I’ll be right there.”— Jesse Thomson (@Braxo) April 16, 2014
Drive Mode, Drive First, Safely Go (Android on AT&T, Sprint, Verizon)
Three of the big four U.S. mobile carriers offer safe driving apps, either pre-installed on their phones (and often impossible to remove), or available as a free download. AT&T has DriveMode, Sprint Drive First, and Verizon offers Safely Go (although non-Verizon Android owners can install Safely Go, too).
Consumer Reports reviewed all three of these apps in January 2014, and I agree with their findings. Drive Safe is not bad, though it does take a long while to restore your phone's normal text/call behavior after it thinks you have stopped driving. Drive First takes a good amount of setup to get working the way you want. And Safely Go is a big, cartoon-ish app that does not automatically activate when you are driving. None of the apps are particularly elegant or good-looking, but the first two get the job done.
Note: I avoided some of the more broad assistant-style apps, like Robin, that contained drive-safe features. They likely work, but they bring a lot of overhead to the task.