How to stop cell-phone use behind the wheel.

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 13 2010 5:45 PM

Driving While Interrogated

How to stop cell-phone use behind the wheel.

(Continued from Page 1)

[D]rivers should do at least one of the following:
Stop the vehicle in a safe location that is off the road, well away from traffic, before they receive or place their calls.
Allow a passenger to receive or place calls.
Use the phone's voice mailbox feature if so equipped, and return the call when not driving.

That's a sensible compromise. If you have a passenger, let him or her take the call. If you don't have a passenger, or if the call is too private to share, let your voice mail take it. If the call is important and you want to check the voice mail, pull over.

What public policies can help us follow these rules? Here are a few ideas.

1. Cell-phone pullovers. Airports have cell-phone lots where you can pull over to wait for notification that the person you're picking up has landed. Why not extend this idea to other roads? We can't build lots everywhere, but we could post signs and mark shoulders to designate safe places for pulling over. That's where you could take your incoming call, pick it up from voice mail, or place and complete an outgoing call.

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2. Carpooling. If you need to conduct business by phone while driving, team up with a colleague or neighbor. The driver drives; the passenger talks and keeps the call off speakerphone so the driver doesn't have to hear both ends of the conversation. You can always pull over and switch roles. It's like having a designated driver, except that with phones, unlike alcohol, the driver can indulge when he's not driving.

3. Mass transit. The most efficient way to let people yap while traveling is to pack them in a vehicle with a single designated driver. That's called public transportation. Transit agencies should take steps to facilitate passenger phone use, such as improving underground transmission. If noise is a problem, agencies can restrict phone use to texting. The important thing is to get phone users out of their cars.

4. Software. According to Levin, "some automakers now include a lockout feature to keep drivers from performing complicated tasks—like entering destinations into a car's navigation system—while the vehicle is moving." Maybe phones could be similarly disabled by integrating them with car software. Levin also discusses a solution from Aegis Mobility:

The Aegis software can detect when a phone is in a "driving state," which lets target customers—mostly parents and company safety directors—monitor on-road calling activity or block calls while the car is in motion. The hard part has been finding partners among the big wireless companies, which would sell the blocking service for an extra monthly fee. In October, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. said it would offer discounts to customers using Aegis once wireless providers adopt the technology.

I can't promise that any of these ideas will turn out be feasible or effective. But maybe they'll help us start a conversation. It's time to outlaw driving while phoning, just as we outlawed driving while drunk. The next step is to figure out realistically how we can make that happen.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1) Don't authorize torture till you've seen it. 2) Blocking cell-phone use in prisons. 3) Bomb innovation and detection in Afghanistan.)

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