Jan. 21, 2011 -- If you don't have the willpower to decline calls or texts when you're behind the wheel, T-Mobile now has a way to do it for you.
To stop cell phone users from driving dangerously, the company this week unveiled a new service that automatically disables most texting and calling features when a phone senses that it is in motion.
T-Mobile's service, DriveSmart Plus, is not the first smartphone application to attempt to block on-the-road calls and texts. But while other cell phone carriers say they are working on similar kinds of technology, T-Mobile's service is the first carrier-backed service to hit the market.
"We heard loud and clear from our customers that distracted driving is an issue they care deeply about. They want to help themselves drive responsibly, and they want to make sure their kids are doing the same. Distracted driving is an issue where T-Mobile, as a carrier, was uniquely positioned to step in and ease those friction points for our customers. We're helping to give them some peace of mind, " Torrie Dorrell, T-Mobile USA's vice president of applications, content and games, said in a statement. The $4.99 per month application, developed by Emeryville, Calif.-company Location Labs, will be available to T-Mobile customers with Android smartphones.
Driving Safety Phone Applications Re-Direct, Block Calls and Texts
Location Labs' CEO Tasso Roumeliotis said that while other independent companies offer similar services, a major weakness in previous versions has been a lack of necessary battery power.
In order for the applications to work, they must use the cell phone's GPS technology, which can be incredibly battery intensive. Though Location Labs' technology also uses GPS, Roumeliotis said it's a patented approach that uses it more efficiently without draining a phone's battery power.
When activated, the DriveSmart application determines how quickly a phone is switching between cell phone towers. When it senses that the phone is moving faster than 10 mph, within a few minutes, it automatically sends phone calls to voicemail or a hands-free Bluetooth headset (depending on which version the customer selects). It sends text messages to a user's inbox.
Depending on the phone, the application can also disable audible alerts so that the driver isn't even aware of incoming messages.
New App Targets Teens, Families
If drivers want to override the service for an emergency call or if users want to override the feature while they're in the passenger seat (or even on a moving bus or train), DriveSmart allows that. But Roumeliotis said the override function can be logged so that if, for example, a parent activated the service for a teenager, the parent would know when the service was disabled.
"We definitely view this as being a deterrent," he said. "And the market is teens."
Roumeliotis said the application will initially only be available on newer T-Mobile Android phones. But considering that the response to the service has been "exceptional," they hope to reach other platforms.
"Any phone that can support our technology, we intend on building for," he said.
Safety Expert: Distracted Driving Is Bigger Than Cell Phone Use
Given ongoing concern about distracted driving, a number of smartphone developers have released applications that use GPS technology to detect when a cell phone is motion and then block or redirect incoming calls and texts.
But safety experts say that not only do these currently available applications suffer from reliability and performance issues, they also lack another key component: the support of a cell phone carrier.
"There are several technologies out there today that, in our opinion, are not effective," said John Ulczycki, a vice president with the National Safety Council.
He said the role of a carrier like T-Mobile is "very significant" because it ensures functionality that smaller companies don't have and also simplify the monitoring process for families and companies with driver safety policies.
Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said that while a carrier-backed service might be more reliable and easier for families to use, adoption could still be a wild card.
"It's hard to know how widely accepted these systems will be by drivers," he said.
Studies have shown that cell phone use while driving increases crash risk by four times. But "distracted driving is bigger than just cell phones," Rader said. "Targeting cell phones only addresses one slice of the problem."