Technology to stop phone use in cars isn't perfect

Many parents would love to be able to give their teenagers a cellphone that couldn't be used while driving. Now some inventors say they have come up with ways to make that possible, but they appear to be relying on wishful thinking.

One product to hit the market, $10-a-month software by Dallas-based WQN Inc., can disable a cellphone while its owner is driving. It uses GPS technology, which can tell how fast a person is traveling. But it can't know whether the person is driving — and therefore it can needlessly lock a phone. WQN, which sells cellphone and Internet security software under the name WebSafety, says it signed up about 50 customers for its first month of service.

Aegis Mobility, a Canadian software company, plans to release a similar Global Positioning System-based product this fall, known as DriveAssistT. Aegis is in talks with big U.S. wireless phone carriers, which would have to support the software and charge families a fee of probably $10 to $20 a month, said David Teater, the company's vice president.

The DriveAssistT system will disable a phone at driving speeds and send a message to callers or texters saying the person they are trying to reach is too busy driving. But because that person could be a non-driving passenger, the approach is a blunt tool.

Other product concepts that don't involve GPS systems have their own flaws. As a result, Parry Aftab, who advises families on technology and safety, suggests worried parents find another way to stop their kids from calling or texting while driving. Parents are better off taking away a child's cellphone if it is used improperly, she said.

"More and more, we see any solution is, in large part, education and awareness, parents getting involved," said Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org. Driving and cellphone use can be a bad combination, "but so is putting on makeup and eating a three-course meal," Aftab said. "I wish technology providers would look hard at the problems before coming up with a knee-jerk solution."

Concerns are mounting that driving while gabbing or text-messaging on a cellphone, even if it is not handheld, is unacceptably dangerous. The National Safety Council said this month that there should be a total ban on cellphone use while driving, citing the higher risk of accidents and deaths.

At least 18 states restrict cellphone use — talking or texting — for some or all drivers, according to the insurance industry-funded Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Yet even in those states, motorists and especially young drivers are hardly deterred.

One of the worst accidents occurred last year in New York, when five teens were killed when their 17-year-old driver, carrying on a text conversation, collided with a tractor-trailer rig.

B. Michael Adler, chief executive of WQN, said his 18-year-old son came to mind as he was developing the company's software to disable a cellphone while driving.

"He's texting messages with two hands and driving with his legs," Adler said. "You flip him the keys to the family car, you might as well be flipping him a six-pack of beer."

WQN's surveillance service promises more than just disabling the phone in cars. It can monitor a person's whereabouts, notifying parents by text messaging when their children step out of designated zones or return home. It also can turn off a cellphone at school, preventing cheating by text messaging during classroom tests, based on a reading of the school's location.

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