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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

New Technology to Block Car Phone Use Far From Perfect

Passenger Cell Phones Blocked Along with Driver's Phones

Recently, inventors say they have come up with technology that would block cell phone usage in moving vehicles, but none of these new technologies deliver as promised.

For $10 a month, Dallas-based WQN Inc. sells software that disables a cell phone while its owner is driving. It employs GPS technology, which can deduce how fast someone is traveling. But it can't tell if that person is driving, so it can lock a passenger’s phone. WQN, which offers cell phone and Internet security software under the name WebSafety, says about 50 customers signed up during its first month of service.

The Canada-based software company Aegis Mobility is releasing DriveAssistT, a similar Global Positioning System-based product this fall. The company's vice president, David Teater, said that Aegis is in talks with big U.S. wireless phone carriers, who would support the software and charge families a fee in the vicinity of $10 to $20 a month.

The DriveAssistT system disables a phone at driving speeds and will automatically send a message informing callers or texters that the person they are trying to reach is busy driving and unable to answer the phone. But the system will also disable the phone of a non-driving passenger.

Other product concepts that don't involve GPS systems have their own flaws. Parry Aftab, who advises families on technology and safety, believes that worried parents should find another way to prevent their kids from calling or texting while driving. She said it would be more effective if parents take away a child's cell phone if it is used improperly.

"More and more, we see any solution is, in large part, education and awareness, parents getting involved," said Aftab, executive director of Driving and using a cell phone is 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 growing that driving while talking or text-messaging on a cell phone, even if it is not handheld, is intolerably dangerous. Citing the higher risk of accidents and deaths, the National Safety Council recently called for a total ban on cell phone use while driving.

According to the insurance industry-funded Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 18 states currently restrict cell phone use, be it talking or texting, for some or all drivers. But despite the restrictions, motorists and especially young drivers in those states are hardly deterred.

Last year, one of the worst accidents occurred in New York, as five teens were killed when the 17-year-old driver, who may have been texting while driving, collided with a tractor-trailer rig.

The chief executive of WQN, B. Michael Adler, thought of his 18-year-old son as he was developing the company's software to disable a cell phone 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 can do more than just disabling a phone in moving cars. It can monitor a person's location, alerting parents by text messaging when their children drive out of designated zones or return home. It also can block a cell phone at school, thereby thwarting cheaters who text message during classroom tests, based on a reading of the school's location.

But do parents really want to prohibit their children's activities this way? That young person you're trying to control might be sitting on a train or a city bus or in the passenger seat of a buddy's car, and not behind the wheel.

Michael Hensley, a manager for a defense contractor, worries that his 23-year-old daughter is a "thumb Olympian" likely to send text messages while driving.

But he doesn't expect technology to provide the solution. Cagey youths "will always find a way to defeat" a technological product, he said. "It's human nature to defeat the system." Rather, Hensley has tried to educate his daughter about the dangers of using cell phones while driving.

The inventors of the GPS-based software systems acknowledge their systems aren't perfect for disabling cell phones and are hard at work on improvements. At the same time, another hardware-based solution seems to be flawed.

Two inventors with University of Utah affiliations have developed a prototype of a key fob device that uses Bluetooth wireless signals to communicate with a cell phone. The key fob encircles an ignition key; when the key is flipped or slid open, the cell phone that is paired with the device is disabled.

Unfortunately, the device has been proven to be easy to circumvent. The key fob’s batteries can be removed or run down, or a cunning young driver could copy the key - without the fob. Responding to questions from The Associated Press and Internet critics, the Utah inventors, Wally Curry and Xuesong Zhou, are taking thier key fob back to the drawing board.

Is your teen a safe driver? The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has developed a new Teen Injury Prevention course to emphasize driving safety for teenagers. For more information, including a Driver Education a Driver Education Book for Parents, visit

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