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There Has to be a Better Way to Stop Texting and Driving… and There Is

by Roger Lanctot | Dec 30, 2013

Wireless carriers may shift from public service messages (2013’s multi-carrier “It Can Wait” campaign) to off-board policy control to mitigate the impact of smartphone texting on safe driving in 2014. The strategy, if it comes to pass, points toward the use of apps or services, from companies such as Location Labs, intended to block text messages when devices appear to be in use in a moving vehicle.

Blocking of mobile phone use in cars has been proposed many times before, including by the Director of the National Transportation Safety Board, Deborah Hersman, who was a candidate to replace Transportation Secretary (and distracted driving maven) Ray LaHood at his departure earlier in 2013. Blocking of text messages or phone calls is the wrong path to achieving safer driving.

The concept of blocking wireless calls or text messages in cars has been opposed by organizations as diverse as law enforcement officials and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Blocking text messages in cars can prevent the reception (or delivery) of urgent messages related to traffic, weather, or health emergencies or even criminal activity.

Mobile phones represent a bundle of potentially lifesaving technologies in cars broadly summarized as providing contextual awareness.  Contextual awareness itself can be used to manage on-board communications in a moving vehicle, but doing so remotely doesn’t make much sense – especially if the consumer will be asked to pay for the privilege.

Car makers ranging from GM and Volvo to Daimler and Nissan are all building solutions designed to integrate mobile phones into a contextually aware experience in the car. The critical element in these systems, though, is their manifestation on the terminal (the car) and in the control of the driver. Car makers are increasingly making use of connected mobile phones with up-to-date maps to enable safe, accurate navigation and driving experiences – while keeping life-saving lines of communication open to the car and driver.

It is true that the problem of texting and driving is serious. Approximately 10 people a day are killed in “distraction-affected” car accidents in the U.S., according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency estimates that as much as 20% of these fatalities can be attributed to the use of mobile phones.

The agency has responded with requests to the 50 U.S. states for bans on the handheld use of mobile phones in cars along with bans on texting. The result has been a quilt of compliance with outright text bans in 41 states, and a variety of other measures limiting the use of mobile phones while driving. (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety anti-texting laws map: http://tinyurl.com/mh2kepg)

But none of these bans are intended to block mobile phone reception, something which is currently being contemplated.The Location Labs application, for instance, is capable of blocking texts according to user-determined (or parent-determined) protocols – particularly for instance when the phone detects usage in a moving vehicle.

Location Labs is a focus of the current development activity since it claims more than 50M installs of its safety applications with more than 1M paying subscribers.  It is not clear how many of these installs include the ability to block text messages, though a VentureBeat article notes: “You could very well be subscribed to its service right now without even knowing it.”

For its part, NHTSA has good cause for concern as texting has exploded in the U.S. and globally with the CTIA reporting 2.19T (yes, trillian with a "T") text messages sent in the U.S. in 2012, a six-fold increase from 2007.  And that text messaging is producing 10's of billions of dollars in carrier revenue, according to Strategy Analytics estimates

  (http://tinyurl.com/l9bsub6 - Global Mobile Enterprise Business Application Revenue Forecast, 2011-2017).

Using the smartphone’s contextual awareness to enhance safe driving, as in the case of an application such as Global Mobile Alert's Pull Over to Text and others, rather than setting protocols remotely is the more appropriate approach to solving the texting and driving problem.  Some ideas look too good to be true – and charging customers to provide a service to limit their text messaging (for which they are also paying) is one of those cases. 

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