By Peter Svensson
AP Technology Writer
New York — Cars use lights, bells and buzzers to remind drivers to fasten their seat belts as they start their engines.
It would seem natural, then, to offer motorists warnings about another bad habit: holding a cell phone while driving, whether for texting or talking.
Several software and gadget companies have sprung up to meet that challenge. But creating an effective, widespread solution looks a lot harder than putting in reminders for seat belts.
Furthermore, researchers are only just beginning to figure out what constitutes a dangerous distraction, and how best to curb it.
Many states ban drivers from using cell phones without hands-free devices, but a recent insurance industry study found that such laws haven’t reduced crashes. It’s unclear why, but one reason might be that drivers flout the laws.
But these applications work only on some phones and have a hard time figuring out if the user is actually driving. Potentially important players — wireless carriers, cell phone makers, auto manufacturers and the federal government — have yet to step in, leaving the field to smaller companies that lack the clout to put services in widespread use.
And some of the tools might not even improve safety.
“Technology without a clear vision for how it’s going to actually help drivers could end up doing more harm than good,” said John Lee, professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
For instance, Drive Safely Corp. proposes to put software on phones to detect, using a built-in GPS chip, when a device is moving faster than 15 mph. To figure out whether the phone is being used by a driver or a passenger, who can safely text in the car, Drive Safely intends to have the phone flash a series of numbers and letters that the user has to match on the keypad.
The assumption is that drivers won’t be able to match the sequence while watching the road, so they won’t be able to unlock it for texting.
Lee suspects that won’t deter teens, and perhaps other motorists, from trying.
“They will try to do that task while they drive,” Lee said. “And by making that task really difficult, you make it more dangerous for them.”
A half-dozen other services are either available or in the works to use the phone’s GPS chip to figure out if the device is moving. With names such as ZoomSafer, TxtBlocker, CellSafety and Textecution, these software tools can respond in a number of ways, such as holding incoming text messages in quarantine until after the trip or by blocking the writing of new ones.
The phones most commonly supported by distracted-driving applications are BlackBerrys, high-end Nokia phones and devices running Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Mobile or Google Inc.’s Android software.
The applications are expensive compared with regular downloadable applications, possibly because the startups figure that parents of teens will pay for a feeling of security. Some cost $40 to buy, then charge recurring fees of $4 or so per month.
None of them can tell, however, whether the owner is in a bus or a train rather than an automobile, or if someone in a car is just a passenger and not the driver. So most of these tools have an override option — which a determined motorist can take advantage of even while driving.
The Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration is looking at ways to reduce phone distractions, but it wants to make sure that technology promising better safety won’t also create an additional distraction.
Peter Appel, the agency’s head, warned against waiting for technology to solve what’s really a problem of behavior: “The real challenge that we face is: How do you get drivers to just drive?”