Phone Makers Could Cut Off Drivers. So Why Don’t They?

Apple says it has taken other steps to address distracted driving. Its CarPlay integrates with some cars so drivers can use voice commands to control some functions of the car and the phone, including letting them orally compose text messages and listen to incoming ones. The technology, Apple says, “allows you to stay focused on the road.”

“We discourage anyone from allowing their iPhone to distract them by typing, reading or interacting with the display while driving,” Apple said in response to questions. The company did not directly address whether it could or should shut down phone functions. Rather, it indicated that the responsibility was with the driver.

“For those customers who do not wish to turn off their iPhones or switch into Airplane Mode while driving to avoid distractions, we recommend the easy-to-use Do Not Disturb and Silent Mode features,” the statement said.

These approaches put the onus on drivers to make decisions each time they enter a car or receive a message. In addition, voice-activated systems raise other concerns, said David Strayer, an expert on driver attention at the University of Utah, who said he had studied CarPlay and the feature allowed drivers to perform some functions that could take their attention off the road.

“It does not eliminate driver distraction — not even close,” Dr. Strayer said.

Technology is already on the market that can block a driver from having to make a decision. One company, Cellcontrol, sells a device that mounts on the dash and that uses high-frequency sound waves to identify a phone’s location. If the phone’s user is in the driver’s seat, the device can lock out prohibited services.

The $129 device, which looks like a small turtle shell, “is very accurate,” said Cellcontrol’s chief technology officer, Joe Breaux. The hiccup is that the technology can sometimes turn off the phone of a passenger sitting behind the driver.

Apple, in its patent, said it was developing “a process in which hand-held computing devices can provide a lockout mechanism without requiring any modifications or additions to the vehicle.” It would use motion and scenery sensors to determine if the phone was moving, and its location.

By not putting the technology in place, Apple has “failed in their social responsibility,” said Christopher Kutz, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, who specializes in the moral and legal principles of liability. “They should’ve done it, and even done it at a market risk.”

He likened the situation to that of gunmakers who could stop selling high-capacity magazines but choose not to.

At the same time, Mr. Kutz said, there was little precedent for companies to shut off communications services for safety reasons. In other industries, he said, companies have taken such precautions — for instance, some manufacturers have technology that will shut down a machine if a worker does not keep two hands on it.

Addicted to the Ping

In the case of distracted driving, Apple is not the only tech giant recognizing the dangerous behavior and not preventing it. Verizon, like Apple, suggests that current laws are insufficient. “While text messaging is banned for drivers in 46 states and the District of Columbia, many people continue to do it, despite knowing the dangers,” Verizon says on a site that promotes free apps and other services available for iPhone and Android that can detect if a phone is being used by a driver and prevent texting.

The Verizon messaging app has a driving mode that, when in use, detects if someone is connected to a car’s Bluetooth system and delivers an automatic response to the sender that the recipient is driving, said Kelly Crummey, a Verizon spokeswoman. However, the message still arrives on the recipient’s phone, allowing the opportunity to check it, Ms. Crummey said.

That technology suggests it is possible to identify a driver and apply the technology more broadly — to, say, social media — but Ms. Crummey said Verizon didn’t have the same kind of control over Facebook, Twitter or other functions. Further, she said, it wouldn’t make sense to turn off all phone functions, like maps or navigation, that drivers rely on.

AT&T encourages the use of a free app, Drivemode, that can stop incoming texts. “Everyone knows texting and driving is dangerous, yet when a text message comes in, it’s difficult not to respond,” AT&T says in promoting the app.

Of course, services like these must be activated by the user and can be bypassed. And AT&T may have identified the reason such solutions don’t work: People find themselves so drawn to their devices that elements of addiction are at play.

In fact, AT&T commissioned research by an addiction expert who, in an AT&T news release in 2014, said that using a phone sets off releases of a neurochemical called dopamine that makes it hard to resist the ping. “If that desire for a dopamine fix leads us to check our phones while we’re driving, a simple text can turn deadly,” David Greenfield, who founded the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, said in the AT&T news release.

But if the behavior has addictive qualities, can drivers really be expected to police themselves? And should automated blocking be the answer?

“Distracted driving is never O.K.,” AT&T said, adding that it had promoted “It Can Wait,” a public service campaign to discourage texting and driving.

CTIA — the Wireless Association, in its response to questions, said, “Laws, consumer education and technology are pivotal, and we’ve seen this three-prong approach work to stop people from this dangerous practice.”

It hasn’t worked well enough, some say.

Apple, as one of the great cultural influencers, might have the power to change the conversation — to make it fashionable to choose safety over the rush of an incoming text, Mr. Kutz said.

“They’ve made themselves a norm maker,” he said. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

A version of this article appears in print on September 25, 2016, on page BU1 of the New York edition with the headline: Phone Makers Could Cut Off Drivers. Why Don’t They?. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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via Hacker News


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