While driving home in suburban Virginia in September 2008, Matt Howard was fiddling with his cellphone. Distracted, Howard didn't see his neighbor's nine-year-old riding his bicycle. Howard hit the boy, sending him careening into another neighbor's front yard.
Fortunately, the boy wasn't badly hurt. And, fortunately, Howard was a software entrepreneur and decided to create a product, ZoomSafer, that restricts a phone's usage while driving to voice-only commands.
Howard is not alone in his distracted in-car cellphone usage. Unfortunately, it often takes near—or actual—fatal accidents to wake people up to the dangers of cellphoning while driving.
According to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), 40 percent of drivers reported they cellphone while driving at least a few times per week, and 19 percent talk daily. As a result, 22 percent of car accidents in 2009 were caused by cellphone usage.
What's the answer? Reports of people being killed don't seem to work. Passing laws hasn't worked—27 states have passed laws prohibiting some or all cellphone usage while driving, most of which the IIHS have found to be ineffective.
Since we can't seem to stop ourselves from potentially fatal auto-multitasking, there are more than dozen apps to help curb our deadly car-texting and phoning. These solutions come in three basic types:
- Dial-In Service
You phone into a text-to-speech/speech-to-text subscription service, which reads you your emails and lets you compose responses—all through voice command.
- Cell Applications
Apps such as ZoomSafer and TextArrest sense when you’re driving, usually by GPS measuring your speed, and disable most or all of your phone's functionality once a pre-determined speed is reached. All offer some sort of emergency override and passenger-usage exceptions, and some include Web-based cellphone-use monitoring.
- Combination Hardware/Apps
Instead of relying on GPS to sense car usage, a small module gets attached to a part of your car such as the emergency brake or the OBD (on-board diagnostics) module. Once the module is triggered by car usage, a signal disables your phone. Another set of solutions uses a Bluetooth module to enable all-voice and text-to-speech capabilities.
Few of these apps are available for the iPhone because earlier versions of the iPhone operating system didn't support multitasking. With the release of iOS 4 in late June, though, this limitation was fixed and so more apps are expected soon.