Story courtesy New York Times
Cellular carriers, having spent years trying to blanket the nation with phone service, are now working on ways to stop people from getting calls and texts when they are behind the wheel.
The DriveSmart app disables a phone’s rings and alerts when it is inside a moving car.
The technology is aimed at curbing dangerous distractions by temporarily interrupting service, short-circuiting the temptation for people to respond to the chime of their phones.
T-Mobile announced a service this week that, for $4.99 a month, automatically disables rings and alerts and sends calls to voice mail when the phone is in a moving car. Sprint Nextel and AT&T said they were exploring the technology, while Verizon Wireless has been cooperating with small companies to offer a similar service on its network.
The services being tested and deployed are voluntary and can be overridden if a driver needs to use the phone for an emergency. They face real challenges in that the technology, for now, cannot distinguish whether a phone belongs to a driver or a passenger — or, for that matter, a bus rider.
Some safety advocates said it was not clear how widely consumers would adopt such technologies or whether they could work effectively. Many cellphone applications already are available from independent companies that claim to shut down a smartphone when it is moving quickly, but they have received tepid reviews from consumers and researchers.
Still, the safety advocates said the move by the major carriers to get involved is a critical, if overdue, step against distracted driving.
They say that the carriers, by testing this technology, integrating it into their phones and putting their marketing muscle behind it, could be forceful allies in a fight to help people resist what they say is the compulsive lure of mobile devices.
“There already is a simple technology that prevents people from using their phone while driving — the off switch. But people aren’t using it,” said John Ulczycki, a vice president at the National Safety Council, a nonprofit group that focuses on road safety issues.
Mr. Ulczycki said the biggest challenge is compulsive texting among teenage drivers. “They need a technology that protects them from themselves,” he said. The carrier involvement is “a very important step.”
Research shows that motorists talking on phones face a crash risk that is four times greater than that of motorists not on phones, while texting and driving is far more dangerous.
Studies also show that it can be difficult for people to ignore the ping of an incoming text or call — for psychological and physiological reasons. People may fear missing an important call from a friend or boss, or get excited by the prospect of receiving interesting news.
Physiologically, researchers say, the lure of mobile devices has addictive properties, in that people feel an adrenaline burst when a call or text comes in and get a rush when they answer.
An executive at T-Mobile said the company was introducing its new DriveSmart service at the request of customers who said they “need help while they’re driving.”
“There are people who know they get distracted while driving and feel responsible enough to themselves that they want help,” said the executive, Torrie Dorrell, vice president for apps, content and games at T-Mobile. She said the technology “negates those endorphins” that an incoming message can spark.
Ms. Dorrell also said T-Mobile was hearing from parents who “desperately want to keep their kid off the phone when he or she is driving.”
The DriveSmart service works by detecting when the phone is switching among cell towers. It then activates the phone’s GPS receiver to try to verify that the phone is moving quickly. After about 10 seconds of motion it will automatically send a call to voice mail or a text to the in-box without notifying the driver of its presence.
The service is available on just one Samsung cellphone. T-Mobile says more are on the way.
The system can be programmed to allow exceptions so that, for instance, parents can allow their calls to ring through or let it be used for applications like driving directions. It also can be turned off by the driver, but T-Mobile says that when that happens, parents can get a notice.
T-Mobile said it was exploring technology that could help determine whether a phone belonged to a driver rather than a passenger.
But the company said it had spent millions of dollars ensuring that the technology works seamlessly. There are existing apps that are often cheap or free, but are not customized for T-Mobile’s network or built with the company’s cooperation.
Researchers for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit group financed by insurance companies, tested some of these applications and concluded that they were “difficult to use, often unreliable, and easily overridden,” Russ Rader, a spokesman for the group, said.
Mr. Rader said that the carriers’ involvement may improve the effectiveness, and could allow corporations to install the technology across an employee base or among fleet drivers.
The emergence of the call-blocking technology is occurring amid changing business incentives for carriers, which once profited handsomely from people paying per-minute rates for calls in cars and elsewhere. But now, with many people buying their minutes in large bundles, the money is made from applications and services — like, in these cases, ones that actually stop people from talking behind the wheel.
Sprint has been working with Aegis Mobility, a company based in Vancouver, which works at the level of the carrier network by trying to intercept the call or text before it ever gets to the phone, according to Aegis’s chairman, Timothy Smith.
Mr. Smith said the technology could be ready for deployment by the end of the year. Crystal Davis, a spokeswoman for Sprint, said the company was “aggressively researching” the technology. But she declined to say when Sprint might deploy a service.
Tracy Van Fossen, a legal secretary in Anamosa, Iowa, and the mother of three sons, said the technology seemed promising. Last April, Ms. Van Fossen’s sister, Julie Davis, was killed while walking, hit by an 18-year-old driver on a cellphone.
Ms. Van Fossen said she would consider getting the technology for her 16-year-old, Alex, to ensure that he would not use his phone when driving to school. But she said she would like the technology to improve so that it could distinguish passengers from drivers.
“Once they work out the hiccups, it would be a very good thing to have,” Ms. Van Fossen said.