Marty Williams recalls the conversations he and his wife would have with their two daughters about the dangers of talking and texting while driving.
“It’s always a concern,” said Williams, who lives in Howard County, Md. “We just drilled it into their heads over and over until they said, ‘OK, we get it,’ and when we saw something (about the dangers of drivers texting) on TV, we made sure they saw it, too.”
Parents like Williams have good reason to worry.
Half of teens say they talk on a cellphone while driving, a third say they swap text messages, and almost half say they’ve been a passenger in a vehicle with a teen driver whose phone use put them at risk, according to federal statistics. Teen drivers are more likely to get into a fatal crash than anyone under the age of 80, in part because their brains are still developing the system that evaluates risk.
These days, however, there’s an app for that, several of them, in fact. There are apps that prevent mobile-device use while driving, and some of them alert parents or employers when a user tries to beat the system. They’ve emerged on the market as alarm grows over the carnage caused by distracted driving.
More than 3,300 people die and 420,000 are injured annually in crashes attributed to distracted drivers. But those numbers may be low because, other than a driver’s admission of fault, it’s a challenge to prove that distraction caused a crash.
Among all drivers involved in fatal crashes, teens were the most likely to have been distracted, National Highway Traffic Administration data show.
“They feel invincible,” said Jurek Grabowski, director of research at the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “They have large social networks and they want to stay in contact with them.”
Conversations on the go, texting, surfing the Internet and taking selfies are such a habit among teens that studies show they underestimate the risk. Teens make up a significant percentage of the approximately 660,000 drivers who are having phone conversations or manipulating electronic devices while driving at any given moment during daylight hours in the United States.
And most teenagers who chat, text or surf while driving are breaking the law. The District of Columbia and 37 states ban novice drivers from talking on the phone while driving. The District and 43 other states bar all drivers from sending and receiving text messages while driving. But respect for those laws is akin to that given the speed limit.
“We need to almost turn this thing into a brick,” David Coleman said recently, holding up his cellphone. “It can’t just be about texting. It has to be about email, Facebook and no inappropriate calls.”
Most of the companies that sell cellphone service — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and others — also provide apps that can limit access.
Many of the apps are triggered when a GPS sensor detects that a vehicle is in motion, and some — such as AT&T’s DriveMode — will alert parents or employers when the app has been turned off or disabled.
Independent experts consider that a feature buyers should look for.
“It’s important to have a solid oversight function so that use can be monitored by a fleet manager or parent,” said Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“Cellcontrol is one of the better, most complete systems. TeensSafer is another one that we’ve looked at that works pretty well,” he said.