Can technology stop phone use while driving?

My daily commute takes me around a large section of the M25, London’s orbital motorway, where spotting drivers using their phones is a saddening pastime. It’s morbid curiosity at its most ironic; we naturally rubberneck when we see an accident at the side of a road, yet it’s those phone-wielding drivers probably heading towards a similar fate.

They’re easy to spot too. Long before the gentle glow of their smartphone screen appears on the faces as you draw level in the lane next to them, the gentle wandering about their lane and sudden steering correction gives up their activity. That and tailgating a lorry at 50mph, such is their disconnection from the task at hand. And while it’s easy to berate, the addiction and compulsion that test subjects exhibit mean that behaviour change may need to be influenced by technology.

Look familiar?

This week, the government changed the law (link added March 1st) in the UK to double the fine (to £200) and the number of points on your licence (now six, from three), with a more serious deterrent to new drivers with less than 2 years’ experience: you’ll lose your licence. It’s a bold step indeed and while many might argue about the weight of the penalty, it shows the right intent towards making this a truly anti-social activity. It has again however raised the question about the root cause of the problem, and how it might be stopped.

There are solutions already available, managed and operated by the mobile device itself, that aren’t technically complicated. Most rely on detecting changes in GPS position to understand speed, where the phone’s common features – sounds, vibrations and other notifications – are turned off. But of course, these require people to admit that they have a problem and install it themselves, while the phone wouldn’t understand by default that it may sometimes be a passenger in a vehicle. And we’re a long way off relying on car manufacturers to implement something, that would then take 20 years or so to filter down to all cars.

Perhaps a common reason for using a phone at the wheel is to tell someone where you are, and when you’ll be with them. If we can’t influence the addicts, then we should at least change the ways of the casual texters with a much more modern approach. Think of it as doing for texting-while-driving what the designated driver did for drink-driving.

One app I use nearly every day is Glympse, effectively a location services app that broadcasts your position, speed and ETA in real-time. It replaces those when-will-you-get-here type texts which, by their very nature, demand an immediate reply. You can share the link to your position via a shortened URL, and set the amount of time it remains live for. Your recipients don’t even need the app; the driver’s position is shown in a web browser too.

Glympse transmits your position in real-time to friends

Glympse have continued to evolve their product and it now includes a groups feature, so multiple drivers can share their ETA. And, as I’ve found myself, it also kind of works on the train as well. It doesn’t particularly eat your battery either; an hour’s broadcast consumes about 10% of your battery life.

I had to check with a search of my Twitter feed: I’ve been using Glympse for a little over four years now, and tap the “Heading Home” shortcut on my home screen without even thinking about it as I walk out of the office each day. Persuading others to take up Glympse is dead easy: you simply send them a Glympse, they view it and are full of genuine wonderment upon your arrival.

There is one further angle to augment the technology, and it’s the ultimate behaviour change: the Digital Detox. Goodness knows we need a break from our devices, but if we begin to claim that it’s cool to put down our phones, then the glovebox really can become the phonebox, as the Department of Transport wants it to be. Maybe there will be fewer lane weavers on my commute too.


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