The Distracted Driving Technology that Could be a Game Changer

A few weeks ago I wrote about efforts to design a ‘breathalyzer for distracted driving’ – an app that law enforcement officers could use to determine whether a smartphone or other electronic device had been in use in the moments surrounding an auto accident.

Now, according to a Seattle Times story republished in The Oregonian, “anti-distraction software by a tech startup called Cellepathy would automatically go into a restrictive ‘driver mode’ when a phone is within a moving vehicle.”

Technology along these lines has long been a goal of activists looking for ways to reduce or end distracted driving. The challenges are formidable. At the most basic level, how does one make a technology sufficiently sophisticated to distinguish between the driver of a vehicle and passengers (this problem sunk some early ideas, such as using a smartphone’s GPS system to tell when the car is moving)? How does one make it both simple to use and relatively difficult to fool?

The technology discussed in the article attempts to answer the driver-versus-passenger issue by allowing a manual override if the phone’s owner completes a quick ‘test’. At seven seconds, this test is designed to be effectively impossible to accomplish while the car is in motion, but relatively easy for someone riding in a passenger seat. Of course, there will still be issues to address (what is to prevent a driver from taking the ‘test’ while the car is stopped at a red light or crawling through bumper to bumper traffic?), but the broader lesson is that technology can, at least in theory, solve many of the problems that it also creates.

This is especially important at a time when technologies are changing rapidly and existing legislation is struggling to keep up. As I wrote recently, a bill (HB 2597) is currently moving through the Oregon legislature that would tighten up loopholes in Oregon’s existing distracted driving law – loopholes that have, in effect, appeared in recent years because mobile technology is changing so quickly. As The Oregonian reports, Washington State has already passed a similar bill, the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act, which will come into force on July 23.

As The Oregonian notes, “no law now requires a driver’s phone to be disabled” while a car is in motion. Over time, this is something legislatures around the country are likely to be forced to consider. In the meantime, we also have the courts and the law to provide a deterrent aimed at people who insist on operating their vehicles in a dangerous and negligent way.

As a Portland distracted driving lawyer I have written on several occasions that while loopholes may exist in current Oregon law regarding what electronic gadgets a driver can and cannot use there are no loopholes that exempt a distracted driver from our state’s laws against reckless and negligent driving. Distracted driving laws have always been a supplement to – not a replacement for – long-standing statutes that hold irresponsible drivers accountable for their actions. Whatever the outcome in the legislature over the coming weeks this something for which we should all be thankful.

The Oregonian: Startup’s software locks your phone while behind the wheel

The Oregonian: Status Page for HB 2597