Texting While Driving? There’s an App for That. And a $400 Cell Phone Vault.

Why technological solutions to distracted driving may not be enough to save lives

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LM Otero / Associated Press

A man works his phone as he drives through traffic in Dallas, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013.

UPDATED at 1:43 p.m.

Driving while texting can be worse than driving after drinking.

Which is one reason why in the basement of the Washington Court Hotel, a panel spoke onstage Friday of using technology to fix the dangerous behavior of texting while driving. The panel was diverse: a young, red-headed spokeswoman of a company, ORIGO, that locks your phone in a vault; an 18 year-old Oprah Winfrey-approved app creator-race car driver, a federal official at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and a representative from the Consumer Electronics Association. Their plea to the National Organizations for Youth Safety’s Teen Driving Summit, a gaggle of high schoolers wearing orange or blue shirts, was the same: put the phone away.

Unfortunately, they spoke past each other, leaving no one cohesive message on how to limit the unacceptable behavior.

There were two technological solutions put forth, which based on price, seems to be a lopsided contest: a $399 car vault and a free app. The ORIGOSafe requires the phone to be docked before the vehicle starts, and sounds an alarm if the phone is removed while driving. “What we have to do is take the phone completely out of the driver’s hands—not allow them to touch it or see it,” said Meg Smith, a spokeswoman for ORIGO. The company believes that some humans cannot control the urge to pick up the phone while driving—and will spend $399 (includes warranty!) to force them to quit. The ORIGOSafe does allow you to use your phone’s existing handsfree capabilities.

“I’m all for signing pledges and committing yourself to that promise,” Smith said In front of the event sponsor’s “It Can Wait” sign, with its handwritten signatures pledging to put the phone down. “But some people can’t keep that promise. They can’t resist the temptation of hearing that ping behind the wheel. They have to see it, they have to at least look at it.”

Zach Veach, the Andretti Autosport race car driver who developed the Android app urTXT three years ago, believes there is a much simpler, free way of solving the problem. His application, soon to be released on iPhone, sends a standard text telling the sender that the recipient is driving. “This is a completely free app and it’s just something I wanted to do to get a movement started,” said Veach. “I’m sure there’s other companies that can do a lot more from the development side of it, but this is made by a kid for a kid.”

The cell phone and car representatives proved that they could make both products less necessary, by either producing phones that turn off while in the car or safer cars.

“There is no reason that you couldn’t design a product that senses the motion of the car and shuts [a cellphone] down completely. But we can’t do that,” said Dave Wilson, Senior Director of Technology and Standards at CEA, which includes Apple, Google, and Samsung among its members. He cited public safety as a reason: you may get kidnapped, thrown in the back of a car, and need your cell phone to call for help.

“We can’t sacrifice those people for using the mobile phones as a lifeline to reach out for help in a time for personal stress like that, just because some people are unable to drive responsibly and not text drive or talk and drive,” said Wilson.

Jessica Jermakian of IIHS convinced the crowd that equipping cars with fancy gadgets like forward collision prevention, a mix of audio and visual aides and even autonomous breaking capability, and electronic stability control (ESC) (which steers the car in the intended direction in the case of an over-correction) can effectively diminish the likelihood of a crash. “Just the warning system,” she said, results in 7% fewer insurance claims, and ESC reduces fatal single-vehicle crashes by 49%. Knowing her audience, she supported her statistics with a video that showed a split-screen of a non-ESC equipped SUV spinning out of control, crashing into cones, versus an ESC-equipped SUV mildly redirecting on wet asphalt.

At the end of her speech Jermakian admitted the obvious caveat: many teens drive old and inexpensive cars (ESC became standard on all vehicles in 2012). But then she questioned whether or not these safety measures would backfire. “Would there be any adverse effects, like increased risk taking?” she asked. “If you know the vehicle is going to break for you, would you be more likely to drive distractedly? As researchers these are the types of questions we are going to be looking at moving forward.”

So perhaps there is no technological cure for texting and driving. “We can’t rely on technology to be the be-all, end-all solution to texting and driving,” said Wilson. “It really comes down to a campaign of public awareness and making sure that texting and driving becomes socially unacceptable like drinking and driving has become.”

Over 40% of teens admit to texting behind the wheel, according to an AT&T poll.


This article has been updated to qualify that driving while texting can be more dangerous than driving after drinking alcohol.