By on November 23, 2016

Texting and Driving

First, it came for your car’s infotainment interface. Now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is after your phone.

The road safety regulator has proposed a new set of guidelines designed to combat rising distracted driving deaths, and part of it involves making your phone aware of where you’re sitting. Specifically, that seat behind the wheel.

Issued today, the voluntary guidelines — aimed at mobile device makers — are the second phase of NHTSA’s plan to crack down on driver cell phone use. The first phase, issued in 2013, targeted automakers and electronic devices installed as original equipment.

Despite the creation of technology allowing drivers to dial and text hands-free and infotainment systems that keep some functions off limits when the vehicle is in gear, roadway carnage is still on the rise. Distraction-related crashes in the U.S. rose 8.8 percent between 2014 and 2015, leading to 3,477 deaths. Of them, cell phone use is a growing contributor.

According to NHTSA:

The proposed, voluntary guidelines are designed to encourage portable and aftermarket electronic device developers to design products that, when used while driving, reduce the potential for driver distraction. The guidelines encourage manufacturers to implement features such as pairing, where a portable device is linked to a vehicle’s infotainment system, as well as Driver Mode, which is a simplified user interface.

In simpler terms, it means your phone could soon make all apps and games off limits. No texting, either. Other functions could also be locked out.

While it’s a simple task for a vehicle’s infotainment system to shut down certain functions of a paired device when in motion, it’s another thing for an unconnected phone to do the same. Having your phone know when it’s in a moving vehicle — and in the possession of someone behind the wheel — stretches the boundaries of today’s technology. It also feels a bit like Minority Report.

A mobile device’s accelerometer could be used to detect motion and lock out functions, but that would affect everyone in the vehicle, not just the driver. (It would also screw with people on a train or bus.)

The regulator is all too aware of this:

NHTSA has learned that technologies to detect whether a driver or passenger is using a device have been developed but are currently being refined such that they can reliably detect whether the device user is the driver or a passenger and are not overly annoying and impractical.

Until this driver-spying technology enters the marketplace, developers might have to fall back on a low-tech solution — having drivers manually activate Driver Mode on their portable device.

The Phase 2 guidelines also apply to aftermarket device. The public can weigh in on the proposed guidelines for the next 60 days at

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49 Comments on “NHTSA Wants Your Phone to Know If You’re Driving...”

  • avatar

    ” Having your phone know when it’s in a moving vehicle — and in the possession of someone behind the wheel — stretches the boundaries of today’s technology.”

    It really doesn’t. You mention GPS and accelerometers: they are more than capable of telling if you’re travelling on a bike, car, train, etc. They might struggle a bit with car versus bus, but even that wouldn’t be difficult to solve (via an on-vehicle beacon, for example).

    The real issues with this proposal are:
    * Semi- or fully-autonomous cars will make this a non-issue anyways
    * People who suck at driving will find another way to suck at driving

    • 0 avatar

      “Semi- or fully-autonomous cars will make this a non-issue anyways”

      *This* century please, 007.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ll wager that we’ll have autonomous vehicles on roads, en masse, this decade.

        • 0 avatar

          Nobody more fervently hopes you’re right than I. I also pray for carb-free pasta that doesn’t taste like cereal box.

          • 0 avatar

            carb-free pasta is already here, kind of, in the form of zucchini noodles:

            They are quite good. We’ll have to wait a little longer for lasagna and ravioli.

          • 0 avatar

            Yeah, that’s good low-carb stuff as is teased-out spaghetti squash. But they don’t taste like creamy, rich, dwarf wheat, gluten laden pasta.

    • 0 avatar

      How does that tell the difference between sitting in the driver’s seat vs sitting in the passenger seat? It’s highly useful in several ways for my passengers to retain full access to their phones.

      • 0 avatar

        I think they are proposing a proximity sensor that would permit the phone’s use behind the driver and for the front passenger. Only the driver would be unable to use the phone with — I suppose — a sensor embedded in the driver’s seat or steering wheel. The protocols would have to be standard so it could apply to a rental car as well.

      • 0 avatar

        There’s an simple and direct solution.
        Your phone is your key.
        NFC in the phone allows the car to start. The phone locks out the functionality until the car is turned off.

        • 0 avatar

          That doesn’t let me hand off my phone to a passenger to make a call.

          • 0 avatar

            I think your passenger is likely to have his or her own phone.

          • 0 avatar

            Most of the time that would be true. I used to give my son my phone to call grandpa and let him know we just got off the highway and will be at his place in 10 minutes. But yes, older now, he has his own phone.

            How would using the NFC in the phone work if I want to drive my wife’s car? Or a rental car? How would parking valets move your car without *your* phone? Some sort of reprogramming would be needed, and that opens the door to another hacking vulnerability.

    • 0 avatar
      Bill Wade

      “People who suck at driving will find another way to suck at driving”

      Quote of the day.

      • 0 avatar

        And simultaneously, some people are undoubtedly capable of knowing when they can get away with a quick call, text or radio station change.

        All this nonsense, is no difference than no longer banning murder, but instead trying to ban every conceivable means by which one guy could possibly kill another. Instead of just, as is the case wrt murder: Just crack down hard enough on those who get into accidents that a driver should be competent enough to avoid, to make people utterly s%^&$t scared of making such a mistake.

        • 0 avatar

          “some people are undoubtedly capable of knowing when they can get away with a quick call, text or radio station change”

          Oh, absolutely. I trust everyone’s self-assessment of their finely honed driving skills.

  • avatar

    Ages ago when I rented a car in Phoenix, the (archaic and huge) GPS unit knew if you were moving and would not let you input ANYTHING until you were completely stopped. I am sure phones can do that easily today. I’ve always felt that the phone companies should be more involved in reducing distracted driving. Fines don’t work, people just keep doing it. How about this- first offense, lose phone and car for three days plus 500 dollar fine. I hate to say it but that is what it will take.

  • avatar

    Android Auto recently became available for use directly on the phone’s screen on some phones, even in cars that don’t have the ability to display Android Auto on the in-car screen. It can be set to activate automatically when the phone links with the car’s Bluetooth.

    This seems like a simple way to accomplish exactly what’s being discussed here.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al From 'Murica

      I like Apple’s approach here. You have full on car play on high end devices and Siri Eyes Free for devices that are a step down. I have a sync equipped Ford though (base sync) and it plays nicer with iOS in that the sync button can trigger Siri or the Ford sync voice system. It will only do sync with Android though I haven’t tried it with Nougat and car play on the phone. Still other makes which are less integrated than sync may not have this issue. I know the aftermarket receiver in my old Nissan could launch googles voice assistant but it didn’t have steering wheel buttons.

  • avatar

    Next they will make breathilizer/ignition interlocks mandatory on all vehicles to eliminate drunk driving.

  • avatar

    Lock out all apps, like navigation? No thank you.

  • avatar

    “In simpler terms, it means your phone could soon make all apps and games off limits. No texting, either. Other functions could also be locked out.”

    That is not what the guidelines say at all. Sensationalist BS.

    I wish more apps had a driving friendly UI. Many music apps waste real estate on album art while fonts are too small and menus are tiny targets.

    A good example of an app with a great driving mode is Zoom (competes with WebEx). Getting in the meeting is something they need to work on; I need to have the meeting ready before I start driving. However, once you are in the meeting, you can swipe left for driving mode. At this point Your only option is a giant button to unmute.

  • avatar

    The Gas Buddy app knows when you are in a moving car. Must tell it you are a passenger or it won’t work.

  • avatar

    I would prefer if the government did not spend time legislating and regulating every specific action that might result in an accident. Distracted driving is certainly a problem, but psarhjinian nailed it with “people who suck at driving will find another way to suck at driving.”

    We still have people eating, shaving, applying makeup, dealing with kids and dogs, reading newspapers, etc. Before Google maps people were looking at paper maps while driving. I think every state already has some kind of reckless driving law, why can’t we cover everything with that?

    • 0 avatar

      “I think every state already has some kind of reckless driving law, why can’t we cover everything with that?”

      Because we live in “progressive” times, in which every temporary social cause requires a permanent new regulation piled on top of the old regulations in order to properly convey the frenzy into which we whipped ourselves at the time.

      It’ll make for good reading some day.

      • 0 avatar

        Wouldn’t there need to be relevant law to establish legal precedents for the privacy and property rights necessarily impacted when LEOs must obtain digital evidence?

        It ain’t just Barney takin’ witness statements from Goober & Floyd no more.

  • avatar

    No doubt will work as well as the drunk driver “huff and puff” in the tube device.

    If there is a way it will be bypassed by those wanting to bypass the thing.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    So, more technology is going to built into new cars to interface with your personal technology (phone) to ensure you can’t use while driving.

    In reality this means I should get comfortable being the guy with ‘old’ cars as I am not interested in owning a car with this many nanny devices installed. I understand that distracted driving is a problem, almost to epidemic proportions. I’m just not convinced more government intervention is the answer.

  • avatar

    The NHTSA needs to wise up – the distraction isn’t from phones, it’s having to use a poorly placed (for the driver) touch screen for things better handled with a knob. Those distracted drivers aren’t talking, they’re trying to change the channel on the radio.

  • avatar

    Way too over the top, and people will find ways to become distracted. I remember seeing a guy reading a book in his lap while driving.

    And what about people with kids in their car? That’s pretty distracting also.

    We already have laws on the books allowing people to be cited for distracted behavior.

    At some point, we have to recognize driving is something we allow people to do and that there are risks, or we simply stop letting people drive cars altogether.

    • 0 avatar

      “And what about people with kids in their car? …we have to recognize driving is something we allow people to do”

      driving is still a privilege, not a right. so reducing those risks that can easily be reduced would seem to be the wise, prudent, pragmatic, responsible thing to do, at least until all the self-centered morons behind the wheel decide to exercise some self-control and behave themselves, on their own. unfortunately, with human nature being what it is, we all know that that simply ain’t ever gonna happen on its own.

      regulate. regulate. regulate.

  • avatar

    How about some moderating here ’cause someone is being a dick (literally): partisan trolling, politics, ad hominem.

  • avatar

    I foresee a future of drivers leaning to the right, texting while holding their phones over the passenger’s seat.

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