Drive on any road or highway, and you’ll come upon the same irritation. A car is going slowly in the left lane, or swerving in the right, or turning without using a signal. When you finally pass, you probably aren’t the least bit surprised to see what’s going on: The driver is distracted by a cell phone.
The use of mobile phones while driving isn’t just an irritation—it’s an increasingly dangerous trend. A survey by the Department of Transportation found that 18 percent of all distraction-related fatal car crashes in the United States involved a phone, and a University of Illinois study showed that talking on a phone consistently reduced drivers’ response times, whether they used a hands-free device or not. As smartphones proliferate, things are only getting worse: A recent survey of smartphone owners indicated that nearly 20 percent browse the web while driving, and data indicate that texting while driving may be even more dangerous than calling.
All of this has led dozens of counties and a majority of U.S. states to ban either calling or texting while driving. Obviously, though, inconsistently enforced laws aren’t enough to deter drivers from getting their communications fix. So a team of engineers at the Anna University of Technology in Chennai, India, has decided to use technology to force drivers to keep their eyes on the road.
Their prototype system, as described in an article published yesterday in the International Journal of Enterprise Network Management, uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to automatically detect whether a car is in motion and if the driver is attempting to use a mobile phone. The system then triggers a low-range mobile jammer to prevent only the driver’s phone from operating, while allowing passengers to continue calling and texting freely.
Previously, technologies have been leveraged to prevent drivers from using cell phones in more indirect ways. The SafeTexting app for Android phones prevents the sending and receiving of text messages while a car is in motion—but it also prevents passengers from using their phones. A system presented last year at the International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking uses a car’s speakers to produce a series of beeps, which are then detected by a phone only if it is in use and in the driver’s seat, thereby reminding the driver to hang up.
This new system goes one step further, actively blocking the transmission of data from a driver’s phone so that he or she has no choice but to stop trying to use it. Using RFID, the same technology present in electronic toll collection systems such as E-ZPass, the device automatically detects signals coming from the driver’s phone while the vehicle is in motion and uses a jammer to prevent transmission.
The engineers designed the system with the notoriously accident-prone Indian trucking industry in mind, envisioning truck owners installing it in hopes of preventing employee drivers from using phones while on the road. They also note, though, that it could be linked with local law enforcement efforts to prevent drivers from using phones. When the device detects a driver using a phone, it could automatically transmit data stored in a vehicle’s license plate RFID tag to a police reader, so the driver could be pulled over and given a ticket. Future state or national laws could, for example, force car manufacturers to include the device in all new cars as a mandatory safety feature, as occurred with seat belts and air bags.
All of this is sure to have road-safety advocates excited—and privacy advocates understandably concerned. When our devices are distracting us to the point of lethal accidents, should the police be able to electronically detect when we’re on the phone and jam our communications? It’s difficult to decide if privacy ought to be sacrificed for safety, but one thing is for sure: After years of technological advancements that have connected, entertained and eventually distracted us, future technologies to force our attention back on the road are sure to come.