March 3, 2015

Onboard tech drives away distraction


Distracted driving is dangerous and illegal in many states. Currently, 44 states prohibit texting and 14 prohibit hand-held cell phones while driving. Even if such restrictions are not on the books in your state, it’s a good idea to avoid activities that divert attention from driving. Ironically, that can include the hands-free systems that were designed to comply with distracted driving laws.

Recently, AAA partnered with the University of Utah on safety studies that revealed that voice-activated systems also can divert drivers’ attention from the road. It’s not a big deal when turning on the radio or the heat using voice commands, but it can get a lot more involved when drivers try to get directions, particularly when the system fails to recognize what the driver is saying. When their mind isn’t on the road ahead, even if their eyes are, drivers can fail to notice traffic signals and even pedestrians.

Manufacturers know that current systems leave a lot to be desired, forcing many carmakers back to the drawing board. They’re also looking at how onboard systems can be integrated in a way that actually encourages drivers to stay focused. This year’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas included a lot of car tech, including a Seeing Machines system built into a prototype vehicle. Seeing Machines uses cameras to track drivers’ eye movements even when they are behind sunglasses. Sophisticated algorithms determine if the movements indicate distraction and alert the driver.

Even without eye-tracking cameras, drivers can take steps to keep themselves on the right side of the law — and safety — when it comes to distracted driving.

1. Put it to the test: Even if you’re driving through a state without limits on cell phone uses, don’t assume you’ll be able to manage your phone or even a hands-free system without getting distracted. Test it out when you’re not driving to see if you really can handle it. If you find yourself cursing out the system when it keeps mishearing your voice commands, for example, then it’s not one you want to rely on while driving.

2. Stay on top of the law and your own habits: It’s quite easy to cross over from a place where cell phone use is allowed to one where it’s a ticketable offense. An app like SAFECELLapp checks its data on such laws against your location in real time to warn you to restrict your phone use. If a text or call comes in while you’re in such a location, the app will remind you of the law. If you abstain from using your phone even when legal restrictions are not in place, the app rewards you with points for good driving.

3. Remove temptation: If you find yourself unable to resist responding to calls and texts that come in while you’re driving, you can remove the temptation by making use of a free app from AT&T called Drive Mode to disable texts and calls while driving. For those using other services, apps like Cellcontrol are available. They kick in automatically when the car is in motion, so you don’t have to rely on remembering to activate them yourself.