Close-up of a person in a car holding a smartphone with one hand, while the other hand is on the steering wheel

New software puts an end to distracted driving behaviour: no more texting while driving

  • New system detects when you’re distracted: no more smartphones behind the wheel
  • In the future, your car also keeps an eye on other road users
  • Textalyzer warns the police when it sees you use your phone while driving
  • Hands on the wheel, eyes on the road

Drink-driving is a major cause of deaths on roadways. According to European Commission estimates, a quarter of the road fatalities in the European Union involve alcohol. Add to that the 29 percent of traffic-related deaths in the United States and 10.9 percent of global road fatalities due to alcohol, and you can get a sense of the scale of the problem. But as big a problem as drink-driving is, distracted driving is catching up.

Eating behind the wheel, arguing with other passengers, searching for that special song, and similar ‘harmless’ actions can cause major accidents. Distracted driving has been recognised as “a growing threat to road safety”, and using a phone or other gadgets while driving is claiming thousands of lives each year. The statistics show that, in the US alone, motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers claimed almost 4,000 lives in 2015. Millions of drivers using phones while driving creates an “enormous potential for deaths and injuries” worldwide. But, thanks to technological breakthroughs, that’s about to change.

New system detects when you’re distracted: no more smartphones behind the wheel

Regardless of how well you think you multitask, the data tell a different story. The National Safety Council (NSC) data reveals that 40,000 people lost their lives in car accidents last year, making 2016 “the deadliest year on the roads since 2007”. And to make matters worse, an NCS survey, released in February this year, provided a list of common – and risky – things drivers do. A staggering 47 percent involves texting, which is especially dangerous as texting not only occupies your hands, but also diverts your attention away from the road. But the researchers at the University of Waterloo may have found a way to put an end to this behaviour.

They have developed software that detects any driving behaviour that deviates from ‘normal’. Cameras and artificial intelligence (AI) can recognise when a driver is texting or talking on the phone. It can even notice when drivers turn their faces away from the road (just think of how many times you turned away to reach for something in the backseat). Fakhri Karray, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Waterloo, points out the benefits of the system when it comes to road safety. With software like this, “The car could actually take over driving if there was imminent danger, even for a short while, in order to avoid crashes.” And with estimates that as many as 75 percent of road accidents worldwide are caused by distracted drivers, society can benefit from this and similar software.

The inside of a car with a deployed airbag system after a crash
40,000 people lost their lives in car accidents last year, making 2016 “the deadliest year on the roads since 2007”

Software ends risky behaviour behind the wheel

Until self-driving cars occupy our roads and eliminate ‘human error’ as the cause of traffic accidents, we need other options to improve road safety, and some of them are pretty smart. Cellepathy, a tech startup, has developed software that makes your phone go into “driving mode” once your vehicle starts moving. All of the phone’s ‘fun’ features for texting, messaging, or social media are then blocked. So, with this software, there would be no posting selfies or ‘#traffic#jam’ ‘reports’ on your way to work.

But if you were worried that this means a general prohibition on phones in the car, Cellepathy’s a lot smarter than that. Its co-founder, Dan Abramson, says that the company’s breakthrough is their “ability to differentiate between drivers and passengers”. Passengers are free to text–only drivers can’t. Abramson explains that they want to save lives more than they want to get rich. As he says, “We can prevent a lot of deaths, injuries and tragedies over the next 40 years, and if we can make an honest wage for our efforts, that’s great.” And many are satisfied with Cellepathy’s software. For instance, Hilla Nissani, a general manager of AstraZeneca Israel, admits that the feature is a great safety option. “The software really lets me drive in peace without knowing that mails are coming in, without the ability to read the texts.”

In the future, your car also keeps an eye on other road users

Cellepathy’s not alone, however. The McGill Trauma Program and Trauma Nova Scotia (TNS) have joined forces to develop an app that detects those who use a phone while driving. Here’s how it works. A user simply downloads the iDistracted app, and starts observing vehicles and gathering data about drivers. The software logs time, date, and location, along with other details including whether the driver’s male or female, and marks if they’re talking, texting, or eating. These observations will help compile accurate data about the number of people on the road who are distracted behind the wheel in some way. And Constable Will Diaczenko of the Halifax Regional Police is aware of how serious such behaviour can be. “We know it’s a major contributing factor to crashes. However, to actually prove that it is – without seeing it – is another story.” Hopefully the app will shed more light on the severity of the problem. Dr Robert Green, a Halifax emergency department physician and the medical director of the Nova Scotia Trauma Program, says: “Distracted driving, in the literature, impairs people the same amount as alcohol. And it’s really the next wave of what we can do to intervene in trauma,” hoping that the observations and data collected via their app will help “policy-makers intervene to curb the trend”.

Textalyzer warns the police when it sees you use your phone while driving

If you’re one of those people who don’t use their phone while driving – thank you! But, the vast majority of us have answered the phone at least once for an emergency call, or to let the boss know you’re going to be late. But, soon you won’t be able to use your phone while driving without the police knowing. Cellebrite, an Israeli company that manufactures data extraction, transfer, and analysis devices for cellular phones and mobile devices, is currently working on a project dubbed Textalyzer. This service would alert the police when you use your phone while driving, providing a powerful incentive to play it safe.

“The Textalyzer is going to be a game-changer when it comes to handheld devices and potentially even in-vehicle systems,” says Debbie Hersman, who heads the National Safety Council. “It will be the breathalyzer of our electronics,” Hersman notes. But not everyone is excited about the project. “This is a concern because our phones have some of our most personal and private information — so we’re certain that if this law is enforced as it is proposed, it will not only violate people’s privacy rights, but also civil liberties,” says Rashida Richardson, legislative counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Hands on the wheel, eyes on the road

Drink-driving still claims lives across the world, and until self-driving cars take over the roads, we’re forced to find new ways to increase road safety. And being ‘mildly’ obsessed with our phones and social media, we might need software that will prevent risky behaviour while driving. We may not be drinking and driving, but texting and driving is no less dangerous! So, we better keep our eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, and phones far, far away. Safety should always come first.

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