Laws that limit cell phone use while driving don’t seem to
be curbing accidents blamed on drivers who insist on talking or texting behind
This has some engineers and lawmakers wondering if
technology can do what threats of fines or jail time are not. Could cell phones automatically become less
distracting while their owners are driving?
Rutgers engineers believe they can. They and colleagues at
Stevens Institute of Technology have designed and tested a smart phone
application that pinpoints where a cell phone user is sitting: on the driver’s
side or the passenger’s side.
If the latter, the app lets the passenger use the phone with
If the former, the app takes several actions that reduce
distractions to the driver. For example, it can silently forward incoming calls
and texts to message boxes for later retrieval. It could also respond automatically
to a caller or texter, saying that the owner is currently driving and will
reply later. Or it could offer to put a voice call through if a caller or
texter indicates the matter is urgent. For outgoing communication, the app
could disable texting and make placing certain calls less difficult, perhaps by
offering a short list of frequent contacts shown as large on-screen buttons.
Traffic accidents statistics that account for cell phone use
are alarming. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that
3,000 fatal traffic accidents nationwide last year were the result of
distracted driving. Studies have found
that one in 20 traffic accidents involve a driver talking on a cell phone and
that talking even while using a hands-free device carries as great a delay in
reaction time as having a blood alcohol concentration of .08, the legal limit.
Earlier suggestions on how technology could fight the
problem, such as measuring how fast a cell phone is moving and cutting off
conversations above a certain speed, were dismissed as overreaching.
“The trouble was, that would cut you off if you were a
passenger in a car or if you were riding on a train,” said Marco Gruteser, associate
professor of electrical and computer engineering and a member of the
university’s Wireless Information Network Laboratory (WINLAB).
Gruteser and his colleagues devised a way for a cell phone
to work with a car’s sound system to distinguish between the driver and
passenger. It requires a stereo sound system with Bluetooth connectivity – a
capability working its way into the mid-priced car market.
In their lab demonstration, a cell phone generates
high-pitched beeps and transmits them to the car stereo over the Bluetooth
connection. Beeps come out of left and right speakers at different intervals,
and the phone uses its microphone to listen for the beeps it just sent. If beeps from the left speaker arrive
fractions of a second faster than beeps from the right speaker, it means the
phone is likely in the driver’s hands. A car with four-channel audio can perform
the check more accurately, and may one day even be able to distinguish between
front- and back-seat phone users.
The concept, while simple, had to prove itself in the cabin
of a moving car, where acoustics are far from concert-hall perfect.
“That makes our 90 percent success rate look pretty good,”
said Rich Martin, associate professor of computer science in the School of Arts
and Sciences, who is also a member of WINLAB. The team wrote its initial app to
run on an Android device and plans to develop one for the iPhone. The concept merited
a best paper award at last year’s MobiCom, a leading academic and professional
conference for mobile computing and wireless networking technology.
The engineers hope their demonstration spurs cell phone
makers to pursue commercial development of the concept.
One question remains – would people accept this technology?
Or would they perceive it as yet another “nanny state” action?
Drivers would still have to elect to comply, say the
developers, who don’t see their technology as an enforcement technique.
”We’re making it easier for people who want to drive less
distracted,” said Gruteser. He believes that many people understand the need to
not talk and text, but they simply can’t resist the urge to pick up the handset
when they hear that familiar ring or text chime. So their ongoing work, in
collaboration with WINLAB assistant research professor Janne Lindqvist, focuses on how they can put the burden on people who call or
text drivers. One idea is to alert potential callers via social networking that
their friend or colleague is driving, and to hold off on placing calls or
sending texts until the driver safely reaches his or her destination.
Contributing to the research from Rutgers were Gayathri
Chandrasekaran, Tam Vu and Nicolae Cecan; and from Stevens Institute of
Technology, Jie Yang, Simon Sidhom, Hongbo Liu and Yingying Chen. The work was
funded by the National Science Foundation.
Media Contact: Carl Blesch