Texting and driving has been blamed for more than 100,000 car crashes a year, and according to one study it raises the chances of an accident by 23 times. And now even mobile carriers are getting fed up with it.
In recent weeks, AT&T has stepped up its "It Can Wait" campaign against texting and driving, including a renewed push for DriveMode, a free app the carrier developed to curb texting while driving.
The app allows users to temporarily disable texting and e-mail functions, thereby reducing the urge to fire off a quick text or read email at a stoplight. Calls to 911 are allowed. The app also allows you to set an auto-reply message to anyone who texts you while it's activated, and it lets you set up a limited list of contacts whom you can call (or receive calls from) behind the wheel.
Sprint offers the Drive First app, which automatically kicks in when the phone's GPS detects that it's moving faster than 10 mph. When active, the app locks the home screen, auto-replies to text messages and sends any phone calls (outside of five allowed numbers) to voicemail. But the service doesn't come free: After a 15-day free trial, it will cost you $2 per month per line.
T-Mobile's DriveSmart is free in its basic versions; a premium app that senses a vehicle in motion and notifies parents of any override costs $4.99 a month.
Dozens of other applications are available for smartphone users, with varying levels of restrictions and functionality, at prices that range from free to monthly fees.
But all of them work only if you choose to use them.
It's dangerous, illegal and expensive
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the major phone carriers are offering such tools. In addition to the increasing the odds of an accident, texting while driving is also illegal.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 39 states and the District of Columbia have outright bans on texting while driving, and five more ban it for novice drivers. Fines can be substantial. But only a few states treat texting as a moving violation -- the kind that can hit your driving record and eventually raise your rates.
Get into an accident, though, and you will be lucky if you walk away with only a texting violation as a reminder.
An at-fault accident can raise your rates substantially: An analysis of 841,000 car insurance quotes delivered through CarInsurance.com's rate-comparison engine shows that drivers with a single claim were quoted rates that averaged $300 more than drivers with no claims, an increase of about 17 percent. An accident surcharge could hurt your rates for years.
And even that pales next to possible criminal prosecution. Prosecutions of texting drivers under manslaughter or negligence laws have become distressingly common; in fact, a Massachusetts teenager was sentenced in June to jail time under the state's vehicular homicide law. He also lost his license for 15 years.
How much technology do you want?
Few people will lock their phones away, however dire the consequences. Instead, apps try to make texting less tempting and less distracting.
There's iZup (as in, "eyes up"), a third-party app that shuts down your phone's texting and data functions except for the GPS, as long as you're going over 5 mph.
DriveSafe.ly, on the other hand, still lets you receive texts, but it reads them aloud so you don't have to take your eyes off the road. The free version will read messages up to 25 words in length, while a premium version for $14 a year has a larger word count cap and lets you dictate responses.
iOnRoad not only reads texts aloud, but also turns your phone into a collision-warning system. Mount it below your rearview mirror and the app uses your phone's camera to monitor both your position in the lane and the distance to the car in front of you.
Despina Stavrinos, an expert on distracted driving and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alabama, prefers those apps that totally shut down texting.
"Removing the whole element of distracted driving is the best way to combat the issue, but I'm not in support of the ones that do talk-to-text," she says. Dictating texts or listening to them, she explains, is a "cognitive distraction" akin to talking on the phone, which is less dangerous than taking your eyes off the road to text but still a serious distraction.
The fine print at 60 mph
The rapidly evolving technology of text-avoidance still has some kinks.
For instance, apps that automatically activate at high speeds can't distinguish between users who are moving fast because they're behind the wheel or because they're a passenger in a car or train. Some have a password-protected override in the event that you're not the one behind the wheel. (Meanwhile, a team of engineers at Rutgers University has developed an app that uses the car's Bluetooth speaker system to determine where the phone is located, providing a possible solution to the passenger problem.)
Another issue is that few of the available text-shutdown apps work on the iPhone, which doesn't allow apps to run in the background and affect basic phone functions like texting. (The iPhone version of DriveSafe.ly, for instance, apologetically explains that reading text messages aloud "is not technically possible on iOS devices.") The best bet for iPhone users is to dictate texts using Siri, though apps like JustDrive can at least be used by parents to monitor their teens' behavior.
Finally, it's worth noting that texting is hardly the only thing that can distract you on the road. As Stavrinos points out, "we pick on text messaging, but anything can take your attention off the road, even a child crying in the backseat."
Anybody got a crying-child app?