iPhone Takes a Stab at Curbing Distracted Driving

dreamstime_m_31864274wrecks accidents cell phones traffic crashAfter a five-year run of fairly level statistics on the number of people dying in motor vehicle crashes, the most recent year for which these statistics are available show an alarming upswing. During the 2010 to 2014 period, the annual number of traffic fatalities averaged roughly 32,800 nationwide, jumping to over 35,000 in 2015. In addition to the anguish of death, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates the economic impact of traffic accidents to be approximately  a quarter of a trillion dollars each year. To say that accident statistics like this are alarming is a substantial understatement by any stretch.

Given the availability of new safety features and collision avoidance technology, why is this happening? Well, there are really no clear answers to the problem. The NHTSA citing alcohol, speeding, lack of safety belt use and other problematic driver behaviors as contributor. And it’s this last category that seems to be drawing increasing concern as cell phone usage and social media connectivity continue to flourish across all sectors of the driving population. In fact, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has posted this comment on their website:

Using a cellphone while driving increases crash risk. There is growing evidence that talking on a cellphone increases crash risk, though the connection hasn’t been firmly established. Researchers have consistently linked texting or otherwise manipulating a cellphone to increased risk.

So, even though cell phone usage, whether conversing or texting, can’t be definitively cited as the cause of traffic accidents, there seems to be enough anecdotal evidence to raise it as a concern.

iPhone to the Rescue

Apple has taken a step that some view as a positive to curb distracted diving, announcing that its iOS 11 upgrade later this year will contain a “Do Not Disturb While Driving” (DNDWD) feature designed to detect if the phone is in a moving car. The feature will rely on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to make the determination, muting call alerts and deterring texts with a black screen. The DNDWD feature will also be able to alert people sending calls or messages that the phone’s owner is driving.

In announcing the new feature, Apple’s website puts a positive spin on the idea by proclaiming, “Do Not Disturb. When you’re driving, just drive.” And the secondary pitch claims, “iPhone can now sense when you might be driving and prevent you from being distracted by calls, text messages, and notifications. People trying to reach you can automatically be notified that you’re driving.”(1)

While this may be a step toward addressing the problem, there is some skepticism about how much of a positive factor the DNDWD feature will be. The feature can be overridden fairly easily, according to some industry watchers. For example, by informing the phone that you are a passenger instead of a driver, the feature can be bypassed. And then there’s the ability of the owner to identify certain numbers that would be allowed to ring through, essentially in the name of handling emergency calls.

As the DNDWD feature settles in, there will no doubt be quite a bit of conjecture about whether or not it really makes a difference. Hardcore phone junkies are likely to routinely bypass the feature, and situations involving critical phone messages blocked by the feature may cause others to think twice about using it. Still, it’s an important step toward addressing a growing problem, and Apple should be encouraged to explore ways to make the concept more acceptable to more drivers. Distracted driving is about more than technology, and it will take a wholesale change in how responsibility behind the wheel is viewed by the masses.

But it’s a start. And look how long it took seat belts to reach universal acceptance.


(1) https://www.apple.com/ios/ios-11-preview

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