Distracted drivers get mixed messages

The potential of consumers talking while driving was a fear that kept Martin Cooper, Motorola engineer and the inventor of the first cell phone, awake at night, according to an interesting report in the New York Times today. He suggested a lock on the dial to keep users from making calls while in motion. This idea got lost as the business of in-car calling became more attractive, but other options have since arisen. The latest comes from ZoomSafer, which today launched a new Web site and partnered with cell-phone retailer Wirefly to offer free ZoomSafer-equipped BlackBerry smartphones to encourage safe driving.

The ZoomSafer software locks the BlackBerry’s keypad when the user begins driving to prevent outbound texts or emails. Inbound alerts are also temporarily suppressed so users aren’t tempted to look at their phone. The software automatically sends an “on the road” reply letting the sender know that user is driving and will return the message when he or she reaches their destination.

As more states make driving while texting or talking illegal, the speech-to-text market has also picked up, with companies like Spinvox and Mobivox offering solutions for hands-free texting and voice calls. Bluetooth offers an alternative for hands-free driving.

The NYT article went on to state that despite concerns of calling and driving, the industry built a $150 billion business marketing towards drivers, beginning with the ultimate status symbol, the car phone (remember these?). As a result, Harvard carphone1.jpgresearchers estimate that just seven years ago, drivers using cell phones caused 2,600 fatal crashes a year in the US and 570,000 injury accidents. The NYT also cites studies that hands-free devices may not eliminate the risk of crash, which is four times higher for a driver that is chatting on a cell phone.

There’s more than can be done to encourage safe driving, and while solutions like speech-to-text and ZoomSafer are valid, a lot of the responsibility falls to carriers. Some have campaigns against talking while driving, but the messages are certainly mixed. Safe driving may get even more precarious too, considering a whole new generation of devices – personal navigation devices, mobile TV, in-car broadband and fourth-screen electronics typically demoed in fast-moving cars – are starting to gain traction. If the carphone was dangerous, it’s only getting worse from here.

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