Can new technology can prevent driver distractions?

Emmet Pierce

Distracted driving leads to thousands of auto crashes each year, but a variety of products are being sold to help motorists keep their eyes and minds on the highway.

Many things cause driver distractions, from using cellphones to reaching for fallen objects. Tully Lehman, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California, says insurance companies are aware of the gadgets that are made to combat distracted driving.

driver distractions"Insurers are interested in anything that makes driving safer," he says. "Anything that keeps a driver's attention on the road is beneficial."

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), motorists could use some help. In 2011, about 3,300 people were killed and 387,000 were injured in crashes involving distracted driving. At any given moment during daylight hours, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones or other electronic devices, the NHTSA says.

When you’re driving at 55 mph, you travel about the length of a football field every three seconds, Lehman says. Taking your eyes off the road for even a moment increases your chances of having an accident.

New technology to stop driver distractions

One product designed to help you keep your mind on driving is Drop Stop, a device that fills the gap between your front seats and the center console, preventing cellphones, keys, food and other items from becoming wedged inside.

Drop Stop inventors Marc Newburger and Jeffrey Simon came up with the idea after Newburger nearly hit a pedestrian while reaching for a ringing phone that had fallen next to his console.

"Taking my eyes off the road for just a split second, I turned the wheel to the right, popped a curb and a pedestrian had to jump out of the way," Newburger recalled. "I said, 'We have to do something about this. You almost killed someone and yourself.'"

After considering a variety of designs and materials, Newburger and Simon came up with Drop Stop, a synthetic rubber device that is designed to fit any vehicle.

Preventing items from falling between car seats creates "an extra ounce of safety," Simon says. 

Block incoming messages

A variety of products disable cellphones in vehicles that are in motion. Some connect to onboard diagnostics (OBD) ports.  The OBD port typically is located near the steering wheel in vehicles manufactured since 1996. Devices that disable cellphones plug into the OBD port, which is similar to a computer USB port. These devices send signals to cellphones, telling them when the vehicle is moving.

Others devices use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) or Bluetooth technology to turn cell phones off whenever you are driving.

Typically, cellphone applications must be installed in order for disabling devices to work. If the driver's phone had a disabling application but the passenger's phone did not, the passenger could continue to receive calls and text messages.

Access2Communications in Ohio has created the TextBuster, a device that prevents drivers from accessing texts, emails or Internet functions. It sends a blocking signal via Bluetooth, but allows hands-free outgoing calls. A "watchdog" application is designed to monitor use of the device and notify parents if teen drivers attempt to remove it.

Two applications must be downloaded to the cellphone to activate TextBuster. Once both applications are downloaded, the cell phone needs to be registered for the vehicle that is using the device. The system begins working each time a TextBuster user starts the vehicle.

"You can get on a website and track your child from point A to point B," says Access2Communications CEO Brett Barta. The device also will alert you if your teen's car is driving over the speed limit, he adds.

Barta says companies with fleets of commercial vehicles may get reduced insurance rates if they use such devices to prevent drivers from texting or reading emails while cars are in motion.

Send automatic replies 

SMS Replier, an app which uses GPS technology, responds to calls and text messages automatically, removing the temptation for drivers to pick up a cellphone. Callers are told that the driver is busy and will get back to them later. Replies can be customized by the user to explain that they are driving and unable to safely reply.

The product is made by Iconosys, Inc. in California. Company CEO Wayne Irving says he came up with the idea for SMS Replier when his 15-year-old daughter told him she wanted a learner's permit in order to get a driver's license.

"I said, 'You are addicted to texting,'" he recalled. His solution was to "build a smartphone app that would allow parents to have a little more control over their teenagers and their ability to text behind the wheel."

A teen driver can turn the device off, but when that happens, parents receive a notification, Irving explains. "The parent can turn it back on without the teen's knowledge."

Just turn it off

For drivers who have trouble turning off mobile phones, mobile app PhonEnforcer does it automatically, eliminating all calls, texts, emails and Internet access. It also can send notifications to the parents of teen drivers to confirm that the teens' phones have been deactivated by the PhonEnforcer device while the car is in motion. Handily, it also detects attempts to override the system.

Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says the various gadgets that limit cellphone use can be helpful, but the best hope for reducing distracted driving accidents lies in crash-avoidance technology. Auto manufacturers have begun to incorporate such things as forward-collision warning systems, lane-departure warning systems and automatic braking devices into new models, he says.

Forward-collision warning systems use sensors that incorporate radar, lasers, or cameras to detect imminent crashes and warn drivers. If the driver does not respond to the warning, these systems are capable of slowing cars down automatically and applying the brakes to avoid the crash.

Such protections "increasingly will be available in mainstream cars in the coming years," Rader says. 

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