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App aims to keep phone-using passengers connected

Justin Stoltzfus

With distracted driving very much in the spotlight, companies have been developing smartphone apps that prevent drivers from using their cellphones while behind the wheel. But there’s been a common complaint about these apps — they often prevent passengers from using their phones as well. A new product aims to prevent passengers from getting disconnected.

The problem

The goal of traditional “hard blocking” or auto-shutoff phone systems was to eliminate talking and texting while driving. Generally, anti-distracted driving smartphone apps work like this: The phone senses the car is in motion. The phone then goes on lockdown, preventing the driver from placing calls (except for 911 calls) or sending texts until the car comes to a stop. Unfortunately, conscientious smartphone users who install such apps on their phones and forget to disable them could find themselves in a predicament — their phones don’t work while they’re in the passenger seat or on a bus.

A possible solution

Researchers at the Stevens Institute of Technology have developed technology that they say can determine whether it’s a driver or passenger who is using the phone. This design, which still is in the planning stages, theoretically would leave passengers free to talk or text while preventing distracted driving.

The cellphone detection setup relies on a car’s built-in Bluetooth technology, as well as the car’s stereo. The stereo emits a series of beeps to determine the distance from the car’s center of any phones in the vehicle. It then can communicate to the Bluetooth system which phone should be disabled — the one nearest the driver’s seat. In tests, the researchers were able to locate the driver’s phone with 95 percent accuracy.

Still, such a system is not without flaws. It requires a car to be equipped with Bluetooth technology and working speakers. Moreover, a driver might be able to “fool” it by keeping the phone in an empty passenger seat.

Distracted driving

Researchers and developers have a lot of motivation to perfect anti-distracted driving technology. Drivers are 23 times more likely to crash if they’re texting, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Most states have laws that ban handheld phone use behind the wheel in some form — yet drivers continue to use their phones while driving, despite the risks to their lives and auto insurance premiums.

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