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Scientists at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute are skeptical, however, of simulator studies. In July the institute released a data analysis of the behavior of scores of drivers who agreed to have a camera placed in their vehicle for a year or so. After examining footage that preceded crashes and near crashes, the researchers concluded that while manual manipulation of a cell phone (dialing and texting) led to a greater risk of an accident, simple participation in a phone conversation (talking or listening) did not lead to a statistically significant increase in risk. The study will be presented next month at the first international conference on driver distraction and inattention, in Göteborg, Sweden.
In spite of the proliferation of anti-cell-phone laws, drivers' habits don't appear to be changing. A 2008 Nationwide Mutual Insurance survey found that only 63% of drivers planned to abide by laws prohibiting cell phones. So parents, employers and insurance companies are stepping in to help minimize driver distraction. In the next few months, several technology start-ups will release new products for phones that can detect when a car is in motion and automatically log incoming calls and texts much as a personal assistant would. All the products have provisions that allow both incoming and outgoing calls during emergencies.
Knowing that people will be unlikely to volunteer for a service that takes away their phone privileges, Nationwide has partnered with one of the start-ups and is planning to offer a discounted rate for those who use the distraction reducer. The insurer says its discount will most likely cover the cost of Aegis Mobility's DriveAssist, which will be available next year.
Meanwhile, the CAS is calling for more draconian measures. Now that it has uncovered the NHTSA research, it is filing a petition calling for all new cars to have a device installed that allows only emergency calls. "We do not see how [NHTSA] can turn down a problem that's rapidly turning out to be as bad as drunk driving," says Clarence Ditlow, CAS's executive director. "We're asking that technology be installed in cars to disable their cell phones whenever you shift out of park."
Though Ditlow admits that such a move could be years away, the organization's goal remains to "make talking and driving as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving," he says. "It's just a question of when we get there."
New Services to Reduce Driver Distraction
Parents can set up a password-protected profile that won't allow calls or texts when a Bluetooth device detects that the car is in motion.
$99, then $10 per month for Web services
Aegis Mobility DriveAssist
Downloaded software will use a phone's GPS to determine whether it is in a moving vehicle, then log incoming calls and texts, and respond with a message that you're driving.
$6 to $12 per month
The least restrictive of these three products, this downloadable software lets you dictate text messages and updates to social-networking sites while you're driving.
Free; premium subscription is $5 per month