Can Our Phones Get Us to Stop Texting and Driving?

With the Massachusetts law going on four years, technology is stepping in.

textingIt’s against the law. We know it’s dangerous. But dammit that text might be interesting! In Massachusetts, we still can’t resist the urge to send a text or e-mail while driving. Is there a way that technology on our phones can save us from ourselves?

The state law banning the practice is going on four years old, and while there’s some evidence that we’re safer than other states, we still do a lot of texting behind the wheel. This summer, the CDC released results of its survey of high school students. The good news was that Massachusetts teens had the lowest rate of texting while driving. The bad news is that 32.3 percent of them still admitted to it. (Nationally, the average was 41.3 percent.)

A 2013 Massachusetts survey also found that one-quarter of drivers wouldn’t change their behavior because of a law. So if force won’t work, can technology help? AT&T has been promoting an “It Can Wait” campaign, asking people to text “#X” to any friends with whom they were conversing before getting behind the wheel. The hope is that it becomes a kind of universal symbol for “I’ll text you when I’m done driving.” It’s a good idea, but it has limitations. Unlike an away message or vacation auto-reply, it requires us to actively send a message. Plus, there’s always the temptation to look at texts that have come in after you started driving from people who didn’t get your your #Xs. And hey, while you’re at this stoplight, might as well see what’s up on Instagram and ooh also what is this song? I should Shazaam it.  Wait, is this actually Nicki Mina… HONK. Oh, light’s green!

Anyway… phone providers are coming up with a variety of “Driving modes,” which, like airplane mode, limit your incoming messages when you have them enabled. When AT&T’s app is on, for instance, and the phone senses that the vehicle is moving 25 mph, the app sends an auto-reply message to incoming texters. This adds a dose of automated control to those who can’t regulate themselves, which is nice.

But what about those people who don’t want to regulate themselves? Like, say, teenagers? There are a ways parents can monitor them. The AT&T driver’s mode will text parents if a kid disables it while moving. Esurance sponsored a device that can be installed in a kid’s car to limit their cell phone use and track their driving behavior. Parents can customize the range of activities allowed by the phone when it is in the car.

That might feel a little overbearing. And an app that lets anyone who texts you know that you are behind the wheel might feel invasive, too. But there’s never going to be a perfect solution. (Well, the perfect solution is to just not text and drive. But again, a lot of us aren’t very good with that one.) And given that four years into a world where texting behind the wheel is illegal we’re still often ignoring the law, figuring out how the phones we find so irresistible can actually work with us is a pretty good start.