Safety Regulators Hope A “Driver Mode” On Phones Would Curb Distracted Driving

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Whether it’s Tweeting, SnapChatting, playing Pokémon Go, or just sending a text while on the road, it’s clear that smartphones present a potentially deadly distraction for drivers. Most states have banned or restricted texting while driving, but these problems persist. Now federal safety regulators are proposing new guidelines to curb distracted driving, including asking phone manufacturers to include a “Driver Mode” that would limit the use of a smartphone while behind the wheel.

The proposal [PDF] released this morning represents the second phase of NHTSA’s voluntary guidelines to address driver distraction on U.S. roads and reduce the number of traffic fatalities that result from such incidents.

The first proposal focused on devices or systems built into vehicles at the time they are manufactured, while the second phase urges electronics developers — such as Apple, Samsung, and others — to create products that limit the functionality of devices while a vehicle is in motion in order to reduce the potential for driver distraction.

While distracted driving related to mobile devices was once related to texting and talking on phones, the creation of apps and other features has propelled NHTSA to explore ways to limit a phone’s use while in a vehicle. From drivers crashing while playing Pokemon Go to teens using Snapchat’s miles-per-hour filter while behind the wheel, the number of distraction created by smartphones has increase significantly in recent years.

As such, NHTSA’s latest guidelines focus on two options for developers: ensure devices pair to a vehicle’s build-in systems or create a system that blocks content, apps, and other features when a device is being driven.

According to NHTSA, manufacturers should use pairing — where a portable device is linked to a vehicle’s infotainment system — to ensure that the tasks performed by the driver while driving do not interfere with their ability to control the car.

For example, pairing should lock out the ability for a driver to play video, view photos, read or send text messages, browse the internet, or read books and other publications.

“NHTSA encourages all entities involved with the engineering and design of pairing technologies to jointly develop compatible and efficient processes that focus on improving the usability and ease of connecting a driver’s portable device with their in-vehicle system,” the guidelines state.

The second option would be a car-based approach to what we already know as “Airplane Mode,” which shuts off a device’s wireless communications for use in flight.

This new version would essentially block certain distracting apps or options on phones from being used when he mode is enabled — think, no texting, Tweeting, Snapchatting, or Pokemon Go-ing. Of course, it should be noted, that a driver could turn on Airplane Mode at any time and have features restricted.

NHTSA says it would prefer if Driver Mode could be automatically activated when a device is not paired with the in-vehicle system or if the device distinguishes that it is being used by the driver.

Because such user-detection technology isn’t quite ready to rollout, NHTSA says manual activation of Driver Mode should also be available.

“NHTSA has long encouraged drivers to put down their phones and other devices, and just drive,” NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind, said in a statement. “With driver distraction one of the factors behind the rise of traffic fatalities, we are committed to working with the industry to ensure that mobile devices are designed to keep drivers’ eyes where they belong — on the road.”

The New York Times reports that highway deaths increased 10.4%, to 17,775 deaths in the first six months of 2016. In 2015, traffic fatalities increased 7.1% over 2014 levels, representing the largest inflation in 50 years.

Of course, some manufacturers, app developers, and lawmakers have already begun working on ways to reduce driver distraction related to mobile phones.

Back in April, proposed legislation [PDF] introduced in New York would have required drivers involved in any crash to hand over their phones to authorities for analysis by the “textalyzer,” a device designed to determine whether the phone was in use prior to a crash. The process would work much like a roadside breathalyzer test used to check a driver’s blood-alcohol level.

Around the same time, State Farm received a patent for a wearable device system that would poke drowsy or distracted drivers.

Additionally, the Times reports that some smartphone makers have added technology that limits phone capabilities. For example, Apple’s iPhones have a “do not disturb” function that can block calls and text messages. However, that feature isn’t specifically made for driving.

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