How do we smartly limit smartphone use when driving?

Want to feel less safe when behind the wheel? Let your mind chew on these stats from an AT&T survey released earlier this week on smartphone use while driving: 61 percent of drivers admit to texting when driving, 33 percent check email, 27 percent use Facebook, and 14 percent are on Twitter.

No one disputes the danger. Actively picking up your phone, reading and typing on the small screen while looking away from the road dramatically increases the risk of a crash. Scores of safety campaigns, including AT&T’s AT&T's Can Wait initiative, have driven this point home. Yet people still drive and pick up their phone.

This is not just people stealing quick glances at the phone to read a text. While the survey did not distinguish between using the phone when stopped at a stop sign or traffic light and actually driving, it turns out 43 percent of the people texting are actively typing away.

Check our guide to distracted driving.

Given the high rate of smartphone use when driving, abstinence-based messages alone just aren’t enough. Ray LaHood, the former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, preached to lock the phone away when driving. That’s not happening. From the AT&T survey, only 5 percent of drivers put the phone in a closed console compartment or trunk.

So where is the phone? The press release notes, “Other unsettling findings include: 62 percent keep their phone in easy reach while driving.” Easy reach is defined as having the phone in the cup holder (36 percent) or on the front passenger seat (12 percent). But that doesn’t automatically imply texting or social media use. My phone sits there when it’s connected to a car’s USB port or paired via Bluetooth, allowing me to listen to podcasts or my music library.

Integrating the phone with the car like this is a vital part of improving safety. Pairing your phone’s capability with simplified menus and bigger, higher-mounted screens beats looking in your lap and tapping on a phone’s tiny screen.

New infotainment systems might be part of the solution. For example, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto have simplified hands-free text messaging systems that work well. These are not free of distraction, and in all likelihood, they will increase cognitive load compared to not texting at all. But when properly designed, such systems can provide a safer alternative to actually picking up the phone.

The genie is not going back into the bottle—people are going to use their phones when driving. Promoting the safer use of phones, including pairing your phone to a car’s Bluetooth hands-free system or learning how to use your car’s voice commands, is an essential part of the solution.

Tom Mutchler

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