A Safe Way to Drive and Text? One Man Hopes So
Matt Howard considers himself a member of "the American mobile society." A software entrepreneur who lives in Leesburg and depends on his Blackberry like a second brain, Matt last year almost became a member of the American mobile society who killed someone.
"I was in my driveway when I got a text," Matt told me. "I look down, and when I look up I've got a 9-year-old boy in front of me. I almost killed him."
The boy was fine--though knocked off his bike. Matt was not. "It was a deeply harrowing experience, the kind of thing that causes you to lose sleep and reflect on your behavior."
Being a software guy, he thought there had to be a software answer. "I started to look for a solution that I could buy that would contextualize my driving experience and help me make better decisions." When he couldn't find anything, Matt decided to make it himself. He raised $1 million in venture capital and this week will launch a public beta test of a software product called ZoomSafer.
ZoomSafer basically works like this: When you're driving, casual acquaintances who call or text get a message that you're behind the wheel and will contact them when you arrive at your destination. If one of your priority contacts sends a text or e-mail--in ZoomSafer's basic version you use a Web form to set up three priority contacts--you receive an audible alert. Push any button on your phone and the message will be read to you. (You can see a video of it at work here.)
The product works by detecting movement of your phone, automatically turning on when the phone's internal GPS determines you are moving faster than 10 mph. A start-up message reminds you to focus on the road.
Matt thinks the problem of distracted driving is "getting much worse, much quicker than people think."
So do I. But I have to wonder whether a product that still allows use of a cellphone while driving--even if that use is tightly proscribed--is the answer. Can something that zooms be safe? Isn't it better just to turn the darn thing off completely?
"You are completely fair when you say that," Matt said, to his credit, I think. "And I personally don't disagree. I think the safest way to drive is to lock the phone in the trunk of your car. I think the practical reality of where we are as a modern society is somewhere else. And what we've tried to do is take a very balanced approach to this and solve it from the user's perspective."
Matt said he recognizes that he is a "Type A, mobile-addicted person." He spends a lot of time in Northern Virginia traffic, driving between home in Leesburg and office in Reston. "I view that hour drive time as productivity time. As important as it is to be focused and make good decisions and obey the law, it's perfectly acceptable to have access to productivity tools and do both: to be safe, be focused and still be connected to modern society."
Is that possible? Is driving and communicating something that can be "contextualized"? The market will decide. ZoomSafer's release works on only the Blackberry. Later versions will work on other smart phones (though not on the iPhone, which Matt said Apple makes hard to customize products for).
What do you think? Can a hands-free, limited-involvement product like ZoomSafer work? Or is zero tolerance the best policy?
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