There's nothing new about distracted driving.
Whether it was fiddling with the radio or trying to get the kids to behave in the back seat of the station wagon, there has always been something to keep a driver from devoting full attention to the task at hand.
Smartphones have added a whole new element.
According to police reports, around 3,350 people were killed in all distraction-related crashes in 2021, and 382 died in crashes involving cell phone use.
But the Insurance Institute for Highway safety (IIHS) says those numbers are almost certainly underestimates.
A report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) suggests the real death toll from all types of distraction could be as much as three times higher. Cellphones themselves could be involved in as many as 6% of all crashes.
Not all the news is bad
Cell phones, while often a factor in distracted driving, also can provide a defense against distraction. A “do not disturb” feature can block incoming calls and notifications while the user is driving.
Other apps may be able to reduce other types of distracted driving, encourage safer speeds and provide basic crash avoidance capabilities.
Tech companies have made big strides. Apple and Google make apps that block calls and notifications while the user is driving and they are part of their operating systems.
Other firms and app developers are working on improving driver monitoring, incentivizing safe driving and other promising ideas.
The latest versions of the “do not disturb” feature allow “breakthrough” alerts for urgent messages or designated contacts and let users select music, get directions and perform basic web searches using voice commands.
If you have a newer vehicle, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are designed to integrate the phone with the in-vehicle infotainment system — but also to restrict overly complex interactions with the device.
Filling the void
Smartphones might also be able to substitute for some safety features in vehicles that otherwise lack them. For instance, various apps use the phone’s forward-facing camera to provide forward collision warning (FCW) on older, unequipped vehicles.
Assuming they work reasonably well, that could help fill a gap right now, when so many vehicles in the fleet lack automatic emergency braking (AEB).
While most automakers have fulfilled a voluntary commitment to install AEB in virtually every vehicle they build for the U.S. market, it will be nearly 2050 before the entire U.S. fleet is equipped with it.
However, if an app could provide FCW that meets the U.S. regulatory requirements for in-vehicle systems, everybody with a phone would instantly have access to a valuable driver assistance feature.
Research by IIHS has shown that such warning systems reduce police-reported rear-end crashes by 27%, even without automatic braking.
A smartphone acting as a tool to combat not only device-based distraction but also other types of distraction and unsafe driving could put a whole new face on these ubiquitous devices.