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Death Toll from Distracted Driving Rises—is Technology the Solution?

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According to Harvard researchers, about one in 20 traffic accidents in the U.S. involve a driver talking on a cell phone. The National Safety Council released a study in 2010 reporting that 28 percent of traffic accidents occur when people talk on cell phones or send text messages.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that in 2011, the number of people killed in accidents involving a distracted driver went up from 3,267 in 2010 to 3,331 in 2011 and the number of people injured went up from 387,000 to 416,000. They add that using a cell phone while driving reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent.

Now, a pair of researchers from West Virginia University (WVU) have proposed a radical solution for taking this danger off our roadways: use technology against technology, and equip cars to disable hand-held devices when on the road.

Should Cell Phones Be Banned from Cars?

As most folks in the Ohio Valley know, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have all banned text messaging while driving. In fact, most states have done the same, with the exception of Montana, Florida, South Carolina, and Arizona. Unfortunately, many people still text while driving, which according to the NHTSA, creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted.

Some critics may call for an all-out ban on cell phone use while in the car, but Harvard researchers disagree. In their study, they noted that cell phones added to drivers’ security, making it easier to summon help for accident victims. The Harvard study also found that the costs saved by a cell phone ban would be $2 billion, compared to about $25 billion in benefits lost.

So if a ban isn’t the answer, what is?

Solution—Add Systems to Cars That Disable Hand-Held Devices

In an article published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, West Virginia University (WVU) researchers suggest that texting bans and media coverage of the issues surrounding distracted driving can do only so much.

"Solving this problem will require new approaches," said Jeffrey H. Coben, M.D., interim dean of the WVU School of Public Health. "My hope is that ten years from now, there will be systems built into all automobiles that disable all hand-held devices when the car is in motion."

Coben goes on to say that such systems would allow hands-free phone usage, and would convert incoming text messages to voice and outgoing voice commands to text using hands-free recognition technology.

Actually, there are already some applications on the market that offer some control over hand-held devices while driving. According to Nationwide Insurance, "Textecution," an Android app, cuts off texting ability if the device is moving faster than 10 miles per hour (mph). "tXtBlocker," which is compatible with several smartphones, allows users to customize the locations and times of day when texts and phone calls aren’t accepted.

AT&T’s "DriveMode," a free application for Android and Blackberry, automatically sends a customized reply to incoming texts, just like an "out-of-office" autoreply. "DriveSafe.ly" is an app that reads text messages and emails out loud in real time, and sends an autoresponse.

Yet whether such applications will gain widespread use remains to be seen. Researchers from WVU say that the federal government must take stronger action—including setting new safety standards that involve such technology.

"While education and increasing awareness of this problem is certainly warranted," the article reads, "education alone rarely leads to behavioral change."