The jury is in: ergonomics research shows that using a cell phone for any purpose behind the wheel – even hands-free – amounts to dangerous driving. Despite the findings, many states resist banning drivers’ use of the devices. New technology and a proactive move by one insurance company address cellphone driver risks from a different angle.
Widely-reported studies from Virginia Tech, the University of Utah and other institutions show clearly that cell phone drivers are distracted vehicle operators. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety say that drivers are four times more likely to have an accident if they are talking on the phone, regardless of whether the conversation is hands-free.
Some branches of the new cellphone-curbing technology start with the assumption that the addiction to staying connected at all times, on or off the road, often overrides any sense of caution. If the driver doesn’t voluntarily turn of the phone en route, the technology will do it. The phone’s GPS signal, data from the car itself or from nearby cellphone towers work together as an involuntary curb. Any incoming calls are routed to voice mail or a message explaining that the phone’s owner is driving. The appeal of the concept to parents of teen drivers and to safety-conscious employers doesn’t need to be explained.
The manufacturers pioneering the technology include Aegis Mobility, a Canadian software company, which has released the GPS-based system called DriveAssist. The system the company refers to as “advanced call-management technology” is designed to disable a phone at driving speeds and send a message to callers or texters saying the person they are trying to reach is too busy driving. ZoomSafer and obdEdge employ similar systems.
University of Utah researchers are pioneering a system called the Key2SafeDriving. As described by the manufacturer, it disables a driver’s ability to send or receive calls or text messages by encasing a car key in a Bluetooth-enabled device. When the key is inserted in the ignition, it cuts off the phone from the outside world. Incoming calls and texts are replied to automatically with a message saying that the person is driving. According to the manufacturer, the system “empowers individuals, company fleet managers, and insurers with the tools that can promote safe driving by redirecting phone calls and messaging events, and blocking other outbound events (such as texting or dialing). The product is profile driven and can be customized on a per-individual basis.” Utah-based Accendo LC has licensed the technology.
Though injuries and deaths from collisions related to cell phone use cost insurers millions of dollars each year, the industry has not penalized the behavior by introducing punitive rates or by strong-arming a ban in legislatures. Nationwide Insurance is adopting a different approach. Focusing on rewarding safer behavior rather than punishment while supporting a ban, it discounts rates for drivers who use cell phone-disabling technology. Other insurance companies are reported to be considering the same tactic.
"Clearly, in addition to saving lives, it will lower auto-insurance costs,” Nationwide safety officer Bill Windsor told the New York Times in a November article about what it terms “cellphone-muzzling technology.”
Sources: Nationwide: Aegis Mobility; Key2SafeDriving; New York Times