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Using Safety Technology to Combat Distracted Driving

January 2010, by Thi Dao

For the sake of productivity, Americans are engaging in disturbing behavior in the driver seat.

A Virginia Tech 100-car study for NHTSA found that 80 percent of crashes are related to driver inattention. NHTSA also found that more than 5,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver, and more than half a million were injured. As a result, most states have enacted laws or are pushing legislation to ban handheld cell phone use and texting.

Despite these stats and new laws, realistically, once a vehicle leaves the lot, what's a fleet manager to do to ensure that his driver isn't writing an urgent email, sipping a hot coffee, and steering with his knee?

Many companies offer products that combat distracted or inattentive driving, working to modify driver behavior through various means. Ranging from cell-phone keypad restrictions and sensory alerts for irregular driving to voice mentoring and Web-based driver training, these technologies can help decrease dangerous incidents, limit company liability and even lower insurance costs.

Previously the domain of large fleets with high-priced assets on mission-critical time schedules, these technological solutions are coming within reach of smaller fleets in terms of price point. After all, any driver is a "high-priced asset," no matter what size fleet.

Software Locks Cell Phone While Driving

Once it senses movement of 15 mph, Zoomsafer locks the keypad and screen of smart phones, disallowing access to texting and e-mails.

What it Does: When a car is in motion, Zoomsafer's software program locks the cell phone to prevent hand operation while enabling cell phone calls via voice commands.

How it Works: The Zoomsafer software, available for Blackberry and Windows Mobile smartphones offers a way for companies to enforce the safe and legal use of cell phones while driving.

"I was headed to work one morning and I got a text message on my BlackBerry. I looked down at it and looked up, and I hit a 9-year-old boy on his bike," says Matt Howard, founder and CEO of Reston, Va.-based Zoomsafer (www.zoomsafer.com). The boy was okay, but this incident led Howard to consider his cell phone use habits, and prompted him to start Zoomsafer.

Using a cell phone's GPS technology, the Zoomsafer software automatically starts up once it senses movement of 15 mph, and locks the keypad and screen so that drivers cannot text or e-mail until they are out of the vehicle and command the software to stop.

Drivers can still take calls, however, via Bluetooth, earbud, or speakerphone, using an onboard voice dialer with preprogrammed convenience keys and an inbound call manager. Outbound calls can be made via voice command. The software reads aloud names or phone numbers of inbound calls, or automatically puts them through if they are on a priority contact list.

E-mails and text alerts are suppressed, and a customizable message will let the sender know that the message has been received, but cannot be answered immediately.

An additional Voicemate feature is planned that will allow users to create voice-powered e-mails and texts, as well as announce the receipt of priority e-mails and texts, further enabling drivers to legally increase productivity while on the road. Availability with other phone types is also planned.

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