We need phones that help us stop killing each other while distracted

Modern smartphones should do more to reduce phone-while-driving accidents and deaths

We U.S. drivers, for the most part, like our cars, our smartphones, and our freedom of choice. We also truly dislike boredom.

This leads to some of us, too many of us, being injured or dying, because we are far too confident we can handle our familiar phones while driving. That is why we have not demanded that our phones offer us a smart way to let us drive and ignore all the things they beg us to do. Nothing—not research, statistics, stories, or fancier car systems—can seem to stop us.

This must change. We have to have phones that respect when we are driving, offer easy means of automatically blocking or responding to texts and other notifications, and offer smart hands-free operation, regardless of whether you've paid for a cutting-edge new car with Apple CarPlay integration.

More people phone-while-driving than will admit

To watch people try to stop typing things on their phones while moving many miles per hour in a ton of hard steel is to see the human comedy and tragedy during Act One. Many of us are convinced that it is everybody else who can't multi-task on driving while texting a friend or checking email or Facebook; we ourselves, of course, are responsible and coordinated enough to pull it off.

The math and research, however, put the lie to our confidence.

The number of people in the U.S. injured in crashes involving distractions decreased ever so slightly from 3,360 to 3,328 from 2011 to 2012, while the number of people increased nine percent to 421,000. A University of Michigan study found that 20 percent of teens and 10 percent of parents admitted that they regularly have extended, multi-message text conversations while driving; the Centers for Disease Control in March 2013 got 31 percent of licensed drivers to admit to "texting or e-mailing" while driving.

Those that text while drive, whether they admit it or not, increase their chances of "safety-critical events" by a multiple of 23.2, according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. That's from a 2009 study, but a quick perusal of Google Scholar shows new texting-while-driving research rolling out constantly, showing the same things over and over again: we cannot handle the visual, manual, and cognitive commitment of using a phone while driving.

We pass laws, then we keep texting

twd2_0.jpgPhoto via Lord Jim/Flickr.
More phone use, behind even more high-speed steel.

If statistics and research were primary motivators, I would not see, every single time I drive around the city of Buffalo, the tops of people's heads in cars across the intersection. I would not see cars in the next lane over-compensate and jolt from a stop when the driver finally sees the green light.

If a better knowledge of one's body and mind and its limits could sway us, there might not have been an accident near my town that killed an 18-year-old girl riding home from work on her skateboard. A prominent doctor (since acquitted) was intoxicated, yes, but also alleged to have called and texted five different people during the time frame of the accident.

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of my state, is continually raising the penalties on texting while driving, to the point where teenage drivers caught texting while driving may lose their license for a year, and adults picking up notable fines and license penalties. Yet I heard Cuomo say in a news segment last year that, while driven in his official car, likely surrounded by state police, he himself almost always saw someone texting while driving.

What phones could be doing to help us be better

There are hands-free connections in some cars, and other have built-in navigation and phone management schemes. Almost all of them are, if not painful or difficult to understand, at least as distracting to use as the phone itself. They require you to memorize an arcane path of voice commands, or demand physical touches of a screen that is just to the right of your view of the road.

To wit: I managed to remotely log into a small server at my office yesterday, restart it from the command line, then open a server function in a screen session. Yet I still do not know, without looking, how to reply to a text message while driving my car using the Bluetooth-connected system, using one of the automatic replies I painstakingly pre-typed using the semi-responsive screen keyboard.

I think the next good phone, the next phone that makes some variant of the claim that it "Fits the way you live," needs to know that we don't know what is good for us when it comes to driving. We want to be entertained and shown new things while doing the often mundane or stressful task of driving. More specifically, those phones should know when we are driving, quiet or otherwise obscure updates from most apps, and be able to offer their most basic functions without needing to turn on a screen or type a single letter.

Personal responsibility is certainly a factor in distracted driving. No phone should truly lock you out of your phone while driving, because exceptions will arise. But smartphones exist in a difficult realm: they are meant to give you lots of information, allow instant communication, and encourage interaction, and those things, done while driving, are killing people.

Perhaps it is only a matter of time before our society regards driving while using a smartphone as taboo as driving while intoxicated. In the meantime, our phones could be better bartenders, so to speak, and cut us off when it's time to stop.

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