Re-inventing the wheel - How design can help prevent distracted driving

At 19 years, Brittanie Montgomery was a sophomore at the University of Central Oklahoma and a member of the Hornets Honeybees dance team. Brittanie was studying childhood development and like most people her age, had dreams and aspirations of becoming very successful. This dream was unfortunately cut short when she was killed in December 2006 after losing control of her vehicle, crossing 4 lanes of traffic, and being struck by an oncoming car. How did it happen? Brittanie was driving at 62mph and had her seat belt on, but was talking on her cell phone with her best friend who she had known since 2nd grade.

For many people, the issue of distracted driving is not taken seriously until such experiences occur in their own lives. Research suggests that cell phone use while driving, which is only one kind of distracted driving, is just as dangerous as driving at the legal alcohol limit of 0.08 percent. In 2009 alone, 5,474 people were killed in crashes involving driver distraction, representing 16 percent of the total number of fatal crashes recorded that year. Although eating, grooming and talking to passengers are all forms of distractions that have proven dangerous to drivers, texting and talking on the cell phone have received the most attention in terms of legislated laws. Over 30 states have enacted laws that ban text messaging while driving, but the issue is still on the rise especially among teens. A 2007 study conducted by the AAA and Seventeen magazine suggests that 61 percent of teens admit to dangerous driving habits. 46 percent of that number admit to text messaging while driving. Various attempts have been made at increasing awareness and educating drivers about the issue, but there’s still a lot left to be desired. Part of the problem is that cell phone use has been so deeply integrated into the culture that most drivers fail to see it as a threat to their lives when behind the steering wheel. For many, the cell phone is an extension of self. It is a partner, and a means by which they stay in tune with the world. Indeed the advent of smartphones has ushered in an era where there are far greater chances of distractions via cell phone use. Brittanie’s mom remarked sadly that she lost her daughter to technology. Such deep emotional misgivings about technology are echoed all across society. Could this be true? Is the heart of the issue of distracted driving really about technology?

This is where design comes in. I believe that design can greatly reduce the number of fatalities resulting from distracted driving. I know this sounds rather ambitious, but bear with me as I make my point. So far the issue of distracted driving has been primarily approached as a lack of awareness of the matter. There have been several testimonials, educational campaigns and PSA’s developed just as is typically done with most social issues. Some communications even utilize shock videos as a means of getting the attention of drivers. Research from the Florida Gulf Coast University suggests that, while some drivers can be emotionally sensitized to dangers of distracted driving from videos like that, they become desensitized in the long term because they see themselves as far removed from those situations. The missing link is that, there is currently no established practical solution that can effectively deter drivers from using their cell phones while driving. Looking at the issue holistically, I believe that a strategy that can functionally impact driver behavior will be most effective. Of course there will still be the need to support that function with communications that drive the message home emotionally as well. What I’m advocating is that we implement a product that ensures that drivers are discouraged from using their cell phones while driving. Given that a field of distraction is what usually leads to a crash (fig.1), an effective solution will be one that can successfully close out that field.


At the moment, blocking out the field of distraction depends on human accountability, but what if we could make technology do that? What if we could use technology to counter technology? If this sounds a bit too abstract, think about the airplane mode switches on many smartphones today. It is a simple switch that disables calling, text messaging and wireless communication to and from devices. Many smartphone manufacturers include this utility to enable users comply with airline regulations. I argue that this same technology can be used to combat cell phone use while driving. A ‘driving mode’ function built into the phone could send automated messages to callers and ‘texters’, alerting them that you’re driving and will get back to them later. I believe this is a simple idea that should be implemented if we’re serious about finding a practical solution to the problem. The key benefit is that it fosters responsibility in the driver by restricting access to distractive services on cell phones and also provides a safe and hassle-free way of leaving feedback to contacts. Essentially, I’m advocating that we take away the burden of responsibility from the driver and assign it to a technology that serves as a watchdog for safe driving. This, I believe, will effectively close out the field of distraction and ultimately save more lives than we have been able to with awareness campaigns.

The challenge will be for phone manufacturers to work in tandem with the department of transportation and implement a standard feature that can effectively address the situation across all demographics. We need to start enforcing road safety the same way we do airline regulations. The technology is available, now it’s up to us to imagine, create and implement. 

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