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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?

By John Kelly  |  August 26, 2009; 9:30 AM ET
 
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Comments

Unfortunately, no matter how much we would all like to think that hands-free cell phone usage is safe, all the studies show that hands-free cell phone usage is still more dangerous than not using the cell at all.

That said, I suspect that this guy's invention is probably safer than regular texting simply because standard texting while driving is unbelievably dangerous and should probably considered reckless driving.

Posted by: rlalumiere | August 26, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

A lot of it is common sense. I use the Maps app on my iPhone but I don't drive while actually looking at the screen. If I'm stopped at a light, I'll check my progress and estimate what I have to do. Unlike neocons, teabaggers, birthers, Birchers, health-care shouters, and Michael Steele apologists, I can actually read maps.

Posted by: bs2004 | August 26, 2009 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Zero tolerance policies don't work. It would be great if they did, but they don't. In the case of texting, it's very difficult to catch someone texting while driving until they have an accident. Then it's too late. Policing "no texting" laws is a nightmare. I personally don't text while driving (I don't text much at all) and don't think anyone ever should text while behind the wheel, but a device that will make habitual texters less of a hazard to the rest of us on the road is a great idea. If you can't get the device away from them, I'm all for trying to make it less hazardous for them to have it.

Posted by: singlemom | August 26, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Require a blocking device in all registered vehicles. Such a device would block all phone, internet, etc., signals while the engine is running and the car is in gear. The federal government can underwrite the retrofitting of existing autos as it did with the digital tv conversion, cash for clunkers, etc.

Don't like it? Sorry. We didn't like seat belts, infant car seats, etc., either but they have saved thousands and thousands of lives.

Posted by: Rich393 | August 26, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

bs2004, with all due respect (in light of John's civility campaaign) you are full of it.

Posted by: capsfan77 | August 26, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Rich393 wrote:
"Require a blocking device in all registered vehicles. Such a device would block all phone, internet, etc., signals while the engine is running and the car is in gear."

I deplore those who text or talk on cell phones (hands-free or not) while driving, but there is no justification whasoever for preventing passengers in a moving car from using their cell phones however they want, as this hypothetical device would do.

Having said that, it's currently illegal to block cell phone signals, so this idea isn't very realistic anyway.

Posted by: yrral | August 26, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

"Later versions will work on other smart phones (though not on the iPhone, which Matt said Apple makes hard to customize products for). "

Yet the demo video had pictures from an iPhone. Got to love it.


"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."

So if you have it on your phone and happen to be a passenger, you're screwed (or can you disable it?)


"Require a blocking device in all registered vehicles. Such a device would block all phone, internet, etc., signals while the engine is running and the car is in gear."

And if you're a passenger, you're screwed. Stupid idea.

Posted by: r6345 | August 26, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I seriously wonder if people that compartmentalize every free minute into corporate lingo like "productivity time" are completely brainwashed? That doesn't seem much different to me than how a robot would view the world.

How about just spending that hour on the road listening to music or an audio book for the pure enjoyment of it? Or even more shockingly radical - turn off all the distractions, and think about whatever comes to your mind. The insights you gain from reflecting about life once in a while can be far more "productive" to you in the long term than any instant gratification you get from being constantly connected to your electronic security blanket.

Posted by: poo_nug | August 26, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

r6345,

No, blocking signals might not be the best solution but it will work. And laws can be changed to allow blocking signals in vehicles.

As for passengers, it's the price they pay to avoid being maimed or killed while their driver is distracted by a call or text message.

Posted by: Rich393 | August 26, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Anyone caught texting or talking on their cell is immediately pulled over by other drivers who are video taping the whole incident. The driver kneels on the ground is asked right or left and then he is shot behind the ear he/she picks. After the deaths of the first half million drivers show up on you tube people may stop driving and texting or talking on their cells.

Less messy solution unless you meet a certain Senator in a bathroom which will require Congress to pass a law. If you car is in motion a device in your car automatically jams reception of any call, texts etc. Emergency or not. Disbaling the device disables the vehicle.

I favor summary execution w/o due process. Its quicker.

Posted by: omarthetentmaker | August 26, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

I hadn't realized how pervasive texting while driving had become until recently when I was almost rear-ended by someone texting (by the grace of God, they were able to swerve for the shoulder to avoid hitting me). Since being awakened to the problem, it seems to be everywhere I look.

Unfortunately, there is no 'ideal' solution. Signal blocking could be effective, but penalizes the passengers in the car and takes away a safety tool from the car owner. Educating the consumer appears to be failing as well, and policies to date which penalize the driver have very limited effectiveness.

From a social engineering aspect, this is just another byproduct of the 'me generation'. The task I am doing is far more important than your safety, now get out of my way!

Posted by: Disbelief | August 26, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Matt Howard here from ZoomSafer. Wanted to thank John for the thoughtful story and answer a few questions raised in the comments:

1. "Later versions will work on other smart phones, though not on the iPhone" Yet the demo video had pictures from an iPhone. Got to love it.

The video shows an iPhone user sending a text message to a Blackberry user who is driving. Any device, even an iPhone, will receive an auto reply informing you that the person you are trying to reach is currently driving.

2. "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." So if you have it on your phone and happen to be a passenger, you're screwed (or can you disable it?)

ZoomSafer detects speed on the device -- therefore we would activate on a passenger's phone, the same as we would for a driver. The user of the software decides when to exit the application. You can either exit as a driver or a passenger. If you exit as a driver -- we immediately check for speed again. If you exit as a passenger -- there is a "snooze" function that allows you to use your phone while moving.

It's clearly early days -- and we don't pretend to have all the answers -- but we have created Version One of an innovative service which we believe will help people focus more when driving. If anyone is interested, we'd welcome your participation in the beta and any feedback you might have.

Thanks for the opportunity to post.

Matt Howard
Founder, ZoomSafer

Posted by: matthewjhoward | August 26, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Any activity that causes the driver to look away from the road is a problem and that goes beyond cell phones. Let's face it, talking on a cell is no different than talking to a passenger. In some cases having a passenger or passengers in a vehicle can be more distracting than using a cell phone. I’ve seen drivers reading books, editing reports, flossing their teeth, why is everyone so focused on a device instead of the behavior? Distracted drivers kill people! It doesn’t matter why they’re distracted. Taking the easy road of blaming a thing may make you feel better but it doesn’t really attack the problem.

Posted by: althatjaz | August 26, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

This is completely unrelated, sorry- but I've been trying to find the link for tomorrow's discussion so I could send in a question early. John, you're never listed on the weekly schedule. Why is that?

Posted by: surlychick | August 27, 2009 6:43 AM | Report abuse

Would the ZoomSafer software have prevented the driveway accident that Mr. Howard had? I doubt that most people drive more than 10 MPH in their driveways, or exiting parking spaces in lots or garages. Sure, car on car violence at that speed is not the end of the world, but car on pedestrian or biker can send someone to the hospital. I guess the point is that you really need to be paying attention all the time, at the entire range of speeds.

Given this, I fully support the summary execution concept outlined by omarthetentmaker.

Posted by: bucky_katt | August 27, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

What text could possibly be so important that you can't wait until you're parked somewhere?

Posted by: ldm1 | August 27, 2009 8:18 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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