US: We need smartphone 'driver mode' to block apps and stem rise in road deaths

Alarmed by a spike in road fatalities, US auto safety regulators ask phone makers to automatically block certain content while drivers are behind the wheel.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

The NHTSA proposals include a driver mode for phones, which would block some apps when a vehicle is moving.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

US auto safety regulators plan to tackle a sudden spike in road deaths by requiring smartphone makers to offer a 'driver mode' that blocks distracting apps.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Wednesday unveiled voluntary guidelines aimed at the likes of Apple and Samsung to design products in a way that can automatically block apps and content that distract drivers.

The proposal includes a driver mode for phones that would provide a simplified UI and block some apps when a vehicle is in motion, the New York Times reported. Phones should also be able to detect when they're being used by a driver to ensure lockouts aren't imposed on passenger devices.

The NHTSA reported earlier this month that highway fatalities hit 17,775 in the first half of 2016, up 10.4 percent rise on the same period in 2015. Last year also marked the largest uptick in annual road deaths in 50 years.

NHTSA's and the Department of Transport's longer-held objective is for states to ban using smartphones while driving. While still pressing for that goal, the driver-mode guidelines could be a shortcut to address a "crisis" in road fatalities due to driver distractions.

Some elements of the proposal don't seem technically difficult to achieve, given most phones no feature an accelerometer and GPS.

The Times notes that Pokemon Go was recently updated to stop working when a device is moving at more than 10mph. The app's maker, Niantic, made that change after several accidents were blamed on drivers playing it behind the wheel.

Snapchat is also in the spotlight over its speed filter, which overlays a race-car speedometer showing how fast the user is traveling in a video or snap. A Snapchat video taken prior to a crash that killed five people in October showed the vehicle traveling at 115mph.

NHTSA's proposal might be more effective than Snapchat's terms of service, which tells users "do not use our Services in a way that would distract you from obeying traffic or safety laws. For example, never Snap and drive".

On the other hand, NHTSA's proposal also involves coordinating between smartphone and other device makers, after-market infotainment systems, and systems installed by vehicle manufacturers.

Pairing driver phones to onboard systems would enforce lockouts that stop phones displaying video not related to driving, certain images, and automated scrolling text.

It would also block messaging, using a browser, and displaying all text-based information whether they're ads, social media or books. To support this goal, the regulators are also calling all stakeholders to ensure pairing a device with onboard systems is simple and quick.

"As millions of Americans take to the roads for Thanksgiving gatherings, far too many are put at risk by drivers who are distracted by their cellphones," said US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

"These commonsense guidelines, grounded in the best research available, will help designers of mobile devices build products that cut down on distraction on the road."

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