Smart phone apps, gadgets that make drivers less distracted

EYES ON THE ROADAlthough the U.S. Department of Transportation encourages drivers to abstain from using a phone while on the road, there are a number of apps designed to cut down on a phone's potential to distract. Apple restricts third-party access to many functions, so most text-restricting apps or text-restricting functions in apps are only available for Android devices."Drive Safe Mode"Features: Prevents texting/emailing/app use after achieving a set speed (Android devices only); limits outgoing calls to specific numbers or emergency services; reports to an administratoror parent if a user attemps to delete the app. Available for: Android/iOS devices.Price: $2.99."AT&T DriveMode"Features: Blocks outgoing calls/texts/emails; silences incoming alerts; activates when driving over 25 mph; sends auto-reply message while driving.Available for: Android devices.Price: Free."Textecution"Features: Disables texting/app use when speed exceeds 10 mph; passengers can request permission to temporarily access phone functions; alerts parents/employer if the app is deleted.Available for: Android devices.Price: $29.99."DriveScribe"Features: Monitors driver behavior in real-time and offers visual or auditory alerts such as exceeding the speed limit or approaching stop signs; records violations; blocks and auto-responds to incoming texts (Android only); "scores" safe driving performance and awards points that can be cashed in for free gift cards or discounts.Available for: Android/iOS devices.Price: Free."Agent"Features: Reads incoming texts aloud, sends an auto-reply to selected contacts; silences phone; functions activate when speed exceeds 25 mph.Available for: Android devices.Price: $1.99.

In 4.5 seconds, a driver with his foot to the floor in a Ferrari 512 won't have accelerated to 60 miles per hour; a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building will still be hundreds of feet off the ground.

Four and a half seconds isn't a lot of time, but the U.S. Department of Transportation reports that's about how long, on average, Americans spend looking at their phones instead of the road when they check or send text messages. In that time, a car moving 55 mph can travel, essentially blind, across the length of a football field.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that distraction from phone use caused 995 fatal crashes in 2009, and the National Safety Council estimates that 23 percent of all accidents involve drivers who are texting or using their phones.

More than 40 states - including Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama - have passed bans on texting while driving, but a handful of companies and smartphone app developers have worked on technological solutions that make mobile devices safer and less distracting.

"In driver's safety [education], we used to talk about changing driver behavior on 'booze, belts and speed,'" says Kendall Poole, director of the Governor's Highway Safety Office in Nashville. "Those are still very, very prevalent today and things we'll continue to address, but now you can add 'distracted driving' as the fourth component.

"If you see the numbers, they bear out that you're many, many times more likely to be involved in a crash if you're texting and driving than if you're driving undistracted."

The 11-member trade group Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes makers such as BMW, Chrysler, Jaguar, Mazda, Toyota and Volkswagen, announced its support in 2009 of a ban on texting or using phones while driving.

In 2010, Ford - also an AAM member - began rolling out its proprietary MyKey system, which offers numerous safety features specifically aimed at protecting teenage drivers, 82 percent of whom admitted to reading texts while driving, according to a 2011 survey by the Ad Council.

THE COST OF 140 CHARACTERSShelling out for an app or gadget to make texting safer can be a bargain compared to the fee drivers could face if pulled over (or if they cause an accident). Here are the fines for texting and driving in various states:• Tennessee -$50 fine and $10 court costs• Georgia -$150 fine; a point added to the driver's license for each offense• Alabama -$25 fine for first offense, $50 second offense, $75 subsequent offenses; each offense adds two points to the driver's license• Alaska- Up to $10,000 fine and a year in prison; $50,000 and five years in prison if it causes an injury; $100,000 and 10 years in prison if the injuries are serious• Florida - $30 fine for first offense; subsequent violations within five years will add points to the driver's license• Utah - $750 fine and 90-day jail sentenceDEFINING DISTRACTIONAccording to, the official U.S. government website for distracted driving, all of the following are considered distracted driving:• Texting• Using a cell phone or smartphone• Eating and drinking• Talking to passengers• Grooming• Reading, including maps• Using a navigation system• Watching a video• Adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 playerBY THE NUMBERS* 171 billion - Average number of texts sent every month in the U.S.* 660,000 - Approximate number of Americans, at any given moment, who are driving and using their phones.* 421,000 - People injured in 2012 by crashes involving a distracted driver* 3,328 - Fatal accidents in 2012 resulting from distracted driving* 23 - How many times more likely a driver is to be in a crash while texting than driving without distraction* 20 - Percentage of teens who think texting has no affect on their ability to drive* 11 - Percentage of drivers under age 20 involved in fatal crashes who were reportedly distracted when the accident occurred* 4.6 - Average time in seconds that a driver's eyes are away from the road while sending or receiving a text messageSources:, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, CTIA Wireless Foundation

On equipped cars, parents can use MyKey to enable a "do not disturb" mode that prevents a phone paired to the car from accepting calls or texts while in motion. To date, Ford reports that MyKey has been implemented in 6 million cars.

However, teens aren't the only group of distracted motorists. In a 2013 survey, AAA found that 58 percent of 16- to 18-year-olds report texting or using their phones while driving, but the most distraction-prone group is 25- to 39-year-olds, 82 percent of whom say they use a phone while driving.

Recognizing the widespread nature of the problem, SMARTwheel, a Londonderry, N.H.-based company is developing an anti-distraction system for drivers of all ages. The aftermarket device will monitors the position of the driver's hands on the steering wheel and gives an audio and visual alert when there are no hands on the wheel, one hand is off the wheel for too long or two hands are too close together. The device can be programmed to log unsafe behavior and send that data back to parents, employers or educators.

Virginia-based ORIGO sells a vehicle dock, the ORIGOSafe ($399), requiring a smartphone to be inserted before the car can start. Once the vehicle is in motion, the driver will continue to have access to voice-activated functions for calls or texts. If the driver attempts to remove the device, however, an alarm will sound, and the car will not be authorized to restart until approved by an administrator (or parent).

Several smartphone apps and subscription services also are available that offer features such as limiting phone functionality when the vehicle exceeds a certain speed.

Omar Seyal is the co-creator of "Agent," a free app for Android phones that uses phone sensors to automatically enable or disable certain functions. One of the app's functions automatically reads incoming texts out loud and auto-replies to texters that while the vehicle is in motion.

Even with its anti-distraction functions, however, Seyal says "Agents" and similar apps may be useful to curtail distracted driving, but they aren't magic bullets.

"'Agent' is a tool to help avoid distraction, but that's it," he says. "It doesn't convince your teen that driving while texting is bad; it only helps avoid the distraction once the teen places the app on his or her phone."

The only sure-fire solution, Poole says, is to keep mobile devices out of cars altogether. According to a report last May by the Pew Research Center, however, 91 percent of Americans now own a cellphone so total abstinence is probably a pipe dream, Poole says.

Instead, the Governor's Highway Safety Office is focused on raising awareness of the issue through collaborative efforts with major mobile network providers. Poole, who also chairs the national Governors' Highway Safety Administration, applauds AT&T for its "very strong" anti-texting campaign: "It Can Wait."

"I don't know that we have a 100-percent solution," he says. "You're not going to take cellphones away. They're an important technology we use to communicate.

"It's about encouraging wise use of that technology."

Contact Casey Phillips at or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.