Texting Deaths Drive U.S. to Consider Disabling Phones in Cars

The Department of Transportation is considering cell phone software that would prevent the devices from working in moving vehicles, as "distracted driving" laws have proved ineffective.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials are considering software solutions that would prevent cell phones from working in moving vehicles, Secretary of Transportation Raymond LaHood said at a talk this month, according to Discovery News.

The comment followed the launch of the department's "Faces of Distracted Driving" campaign, designed to call attention to the nearly 5,500 people who died-and 500,000-plus who were injured-in 2009 accidents related to what's being called "distracted driving."

While several states have outlawed texting while driving and others prohibit holding a phone while driving, these little-enforced laws haven't been enough to persuade drivers to put away their phones and keep their eyes on the road. According to LaHood, additional measures are necessary.

"I think the technology is there, and I think you're going to see the technology become adaptable in automobiles to disable these cell phones," LaHood said, according to Discovery News.

Software from companies such as Zoomsafer, tXtBlocker and iZup can determine that the user is in a moving vehicle-by gauging the signals passing between cell phone towers-and disable the phone. However, critics point out that such software is voluntary and so is unlikely to be effective.

The Transportation Department's new online video campaign works to humanize the problem by telling the stories of its victims: of 13-year-old Margay, who was killed when her school bus was struck by a semi truck whose driver was talking on the phone and said he never saw the bus; of 58-year-old Julie, who while out for a walk was hit by a truck, whose driver hadn't looked up at the road for nearly 9 seconds; and 16-year-old Ashley, who lost control of her car while texting.

"These videos are dramatic evidence that the lives lost to America's distracted driving epidemic aren't statistics," LaHood said in a Nov. 19 statement, kicking off the campaign. "They're children, parents, neighbors and friends."

In a June report from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, 43 percent of teens admitted to using a cell phone behind the wheel, while 61 percent of adults did the same. Additionally, 44 percent of adults said they had been the passengers of a "driver who used the cell phone in a way that put themselves or others in danger."

The government's effort encourages people to uplink their own videos and leave comments, and will include new videos every few weeks. It will also work to emphasize the seriousness of mobile phone use while driving, which too few drivers consider to be on par with drinking and driving.

In an Octobertest conducted by Car and Driver magazine, reaction times for drivers who were texting and reading texts were found to be far slower than those of the same drivers with high alcohol blood levels. Additionally, the older of the two drivers tested-the magazine's 37-year-old editor in chief, Eddie Alterman, who has extensive driving experience, and was paired up against the magazine's 22-year-old intern-showed the slowest reaction times in all cases. In his worst reaction time, while reading a text and driving 70 mph, Alterman traveled 319 extra feet before reacting to the test's cue to brake.

In the fall of 2009, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.,proposed "The Distracted Driving Prevention Act," which would give incentive grants to states that ban texting and handheld cell phone use. In June, the National Safety Council released a statement supporting the act, calling it a "major step in the right direction" and calling on the Senate to "quickly take up and pass the legislation."

Editor's Note: DOT Secretary Raymond LaHood has written a blog post saying some of his comments about using technology to block cell phone signals were taken out of context. eWEEK's follow-up story can be found here.