April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month and many organizations are gearing up their pitch for greater safety on the roads by avoiding the need to text or take a phone call while driving. Here on IPWatchdog, we’ve discussed the topic of distracted driving and how autonomous vehicles and device disablement technologies might be able to address some concerns of distracted driving. With the month-long observation of this issue upon us, it’s a good time to revisit the world of innovation to find if new answers to the problem of distracted driving are being developed.
As vehicle cabins continue to incorporate more forms of digital technologies through infotainment centers and telematics units, not to mention the personal communications device that most drivers would have in a pocket, the greater the potential that exists for distracted driving. Statistics reported by the National Conference of State Legislatures indicates that of the 220 million wireless device subscribers in the United States, about 80 percent of them use their device while driving. Every day, there are eight deaths and 1,161 injuries resulting from accidents on American roads caused by distracted driving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Distracted driving is especially a problem for younger drivers between the ages of 15 and 19; ten percent of drivers in this age range involved in fatal crashes were distracted at the time of the accident.
One way to prevent distracted driving is by addressing the behavioral problem of a lack of focus while driving and that experience can be imparted to drivers through distracted driving simulators. Local schools or higher academic institutions sometimes sponsor distracted driving simulation events and some are available online, although the experience isn’t as immersive. One such online simulator which focuses mainly on peer distractions is the Heads Up! simulator made available by Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE:TM) This simulator has users direct a Prius or Yaris along a road, using the mouse cursor to steer the car. As the car passes by billboards featuring the faces of Facebook friends, if users decide to link their social media account, users must press a corresponding button on the keyboard within three seconds to remove the distraction.
Another option is the Texting and Driving: It Can Wait simulator developed by American telecommunications corporation AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T) This online simulator syncs with a user’s smartphone to create a more realistic experience of being distracted by a text. The simulator offers two texting modes for casual or business and the simulator can work with a pedal kit for more realistic acceleration. Users direct the car on the computer monitor with the arrow keys as they decide whether or not to answer messages that are sent to their smartphone or tablet.
A traveling driving simulator exhibit has been put together by America’s largest publicly-held personal lines insurer Allstate Corp. (NYSE:ALL) Allstate’s Reality Rides distracted driving simulator places individuals in a stationary car with a responsive animated environment displayed on a curved LED television screen. Drivers manipulate a steering wheel, gas and brake pedals while also being directed to answer texts and phone calls. The system will provide notifications to participants when they commit an infraction which would get them pulled over for a ticket. This March, Allstate began a tour of 20 American cities, beginning in Miami, FL, and the company plans to bring it to sporting events and community gatherings along with driver safety programs.
One really simple way to prevent distractions while driving is to just turn the device off, but of course for those who cannot be troubled to remember that every time before getting behind the wheel, there’s an app for that. Android and Apple device owners alike can download LifeSaver, which can detect that a person is driving and lock the device in response. GPS sensors track the movement of a device and if the GPS sensors are disabled, a notification is sent to a parent or someone else who is allowed to monitor a driver’s habits through LifeSaver.
Another free mobile app designed to reduce distractions while still providing information on notifications is Drive Safe.ly. This app, from speech recognition tech developer iSpeech, uses text-to-speech technology to read texts and e-mail messages as they arrive. Users activate the app prior to driving and readback options are customizable. A ticker on the app’s official website boasts that more than 2.3 billion texts and e-mails have been read to drivers through this program.
Apps reducing driving distractions are convenient but still aren’t as effective as the TextBuster, a device which, when installed under a vehicle’s dashboard, disables data functions for portable electronic device while the car is running. TextBuster communicates with phones via Bluetooth to prevent Internet functions, including e-mail, and short message service (SMS) texting, although it doesn’t prevent incoming or outgoing calls on cellular networks. The TextBuster device also sends data to external servers on trip data and it also uses monitoring software to identify any instances of tampering with the device.
Distractions can occur even more with drivers who are fatigued and unfocused and commercial drivers who spend long hours on the road are more susceptible to fatigue. Monaca, PA-based freight carrier PGT Trucking is incorporating a hands-free Bluetooth communications headset currently worn by a couple dozen of the company’s drivers. The headsets allow for handless communications but it also includes sensors which detect head movements and can be analyzed to determine signs of drowsiness or fatigue. The system can even send warnings that a driver is showing signs of fatigue.
Commercial fleet drivers are also the intended market for the safe driving platform developed by Baton Rouge, LA-based Cellcontrol. This software developer has partnered with Dutch navigation and mapping provider TomTom (AMS:TOM2) to develop a customized version of the Cellcontrol platform for the TomTom Bridge navigation device, which provides an interface for business and traffic software used by fleet drivers. With the new Cellcontrol system, the TomTom Bridge will pair with a driver’s smartphone or other devices to disable certain functions while the truck is in motion.
Another device for preventing distracted driving, and one which won an innovation award at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, is the SMARTwheel intelligent steering wheel cover. The SMARTwheel snaps on over a traditional steering wheel and has a light unit which glows green when a driver’s hands are in the proper driving position. If a driver pulls a hand away to answer a phone call, for instance, the light turns red and a high-pitched alarm sounds and continues until the driver’s hands return to the proper position on the steering wheel. Like many of the other products here, this device also communicates with servers to analyze driver behaviors and better understand poor habits.
Police officers are becoming more technologically savvy and some departments in America are rolling out textalyzers, devices which can scan portable communication devices to see if they were being used at the moment of an accident. Textalyzers are being developed and marketed by Cellebrite, an Israeli data extraction firm which had recently helped the FBI crack the encryption code on an iPhone used by a terrorist in last year’s shootings in San Bernardino, CA. In New York, a bill was introduced to the state legislature which would create a protocol for police to gain access to devices after an accident, creating a greater opportunity to use such textalyzer devices in that state.