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The Shellback Safe imprisons your phone to keep you safe behind the wheel

Distracted driving due to phone use is a serious and growing problem. It causes entirely preventable deaths and injuries, while its financial toll reaches beyond the victims it claims. Lawsuits are being filed daily against tech companies like Apple for failing to prevent the horrendous outcomes when drivers pay more attention to their screens than the road. Meanwhile, lawmakers around the world are enacting tougher and tougher measures to penalize those who find the siren song of their phones more powerful than their fear of emergency sirens. Some are saying that the police need new technology to combat the problem — in New York, work is underway to let them use a “textalyzer” which would identify if a phone had been in use at the time of an accident.

But what if the solution is as simple as forcing drivers to put their phones out of reach and out of sight while driving? Michael and Thomas Maguire, along with design engineer Mike Veranka, have come up with one possible method. Their new product, the $20 Shellback Safe which launched earlier this month on Indiegogo, is a Bluetooth-connected zippered pouch that’s big enough to accommodate two phones. Despite its name, it isn’t an actual safe — no locks are used. For a fee of $15 per month, if a driver removes his or her phone from the safe while the vehicle is in motion, it will send an alert to whoever is responsible for that driver via a companion app on the phone, be it a parent (in the case of a teen driver), or a fleet manager (in the case of a professional driver).

“Vehicles are getting smarter,” Michael Maguire told Digital Trends, “but accidents are going up. The thought was that if we could come up with an economical solution, that eliminates the phone from the factors that cause an accident, why not do that?”

You can run, but you can’t hide

One objection to the design of the Shellback Safe comes to mind immediately: It seems almost ludicrously simple to unpair the monitored phone from the safe, thus preventing the device from knowing anything about the phone. Communication between the two devices is done via Bluetooth and unpairing, and “forgetting” paired devices is something almost every smartphone user has done, or could easily learn to do. But Veranka points out that this workaround, though perfectly doable, doesn’t impact the Shellback’s mission. The safe is not meant as an ignition interlock, or “car breathalyzer.” In other words, it isn’t intended to physically prevent a car from being driven by a distracted driver. Instead, it’s a verification device. If a driver defeats the verification function, an alert will be sent, and “that’s up to the parent, or fleet manager,” to deal with Maguire says.

If a rebellious teen defeats the safe by unpairing it, or removing its battery, the responsible parent won’t be able to track the status of the teen’s phone on the Shellback website. At that point, Maguire thinks a parent would simply say, “no safe, no car keys.” The same threat would be much more powerful in the case of a fleet driver, whose job could hang in the balance.

“The idea was to have this ready by the time my son was able to drive,” said co-founder, Thomas Maguire, “If he unpairs [the safe], he might as well be driving with it on, in an unsafe condition. If he does that, he’s not allowed to use the car. I can check while he’s driving but I can also check after the fact, once he gets home.”

As drastic as the Shellback solution sounds, it doesn’t eliminate the main benefit of having a phone in the car in the first place. You can still make and receive calls via hands-free Bluetooth, as long as your car’s controls support it. This also applies to other hands-free, voice-based interactions like speaking to Siri and Google Now, or hearing turn-by-turn navigation instructions. Thus, the utility of an app like Waze isn’t entirely removed. However, as Maguire points out, the Safe’s companion app could be configured to deny even these functions if a parent or company wants to eliminate all cognitive distractions created by our phones, not just the visual ones.

Isn’t there an app for that?

One of the first questions we asked the Shellback founders is why use yet another piece of hardware technology that needs to be charged and mounted somewhere in the car, when software could accomplish much of the same requirements? The LifeSaver app for instance, locks out all of a phone’s functions when sufficient motion is detected. Just like the Shellback, it will alert parents or another person if any attempt is made to unlock the phone while driving, or if the LifeSaver app itself has been terminated. Other options include the LifeSaver Portal, which is the equivalent of Shellback’s proposed dashboard monitoring website. LifeSaver is far less expensive, at $8 a year for consumers.

The Canadian-made OneTap for Android, is free and will also lock your phone at speed, but it places an emphasis on eliminating text distractions by automatically replying to your friends to let them know you can’t respond right now. If you tell the app how long you think your trip will take, OneTap will include this info in its auto-responses.

“We looked at a lot of apps out there,” Maguire told us, “and we found workarounds for some of them.” In the end, his team decided that they didn’t want to block specific phone functions as much as they wanted to keep the device itself from any kind of use. “Rather than constantly adjusting to another activity the driver shouldn’t be doing, just get rid of the whole phone,” Maguire said.

Room for two

The Shellback is designed to accommodate up to two phones, but why? It turns out that in a professional fleet context, drivers are often given company phones to use on the road, but they bring their personal phones along as well. There’s no point in securing just one of these, Maguire said, so “fleet managers can require that employees pair their personal phones to the safe, or just leave them at home.”

For regular consumers, a teen could set their phone to “passenger” mode, which means that the use of that phone would not be reported while driving. But if there’s only one phone in the car, it is automatically set to “driver” mode, and can’t be changed until another paired phone is present. Fleet managers can lock out the passenger mode so that drivers with two phones can’t game the system.

Eye in the sky

The safe uses a paired phone’s data connection and on-board sensors. The GPS, gyroscope, and accelerometer all play a role in understanding if the vehicle is in motion, while the safe’s patent-pending technology detects whether or not the phone is safely stowed. The Shellback app then sends small data packets to the cloud where driver data can be tracked in real-time on a customizable dashboard by the parent or fleet manager. The downside to this system is that it requires that the monitored phone has a least a meager mobile data plan.

Veranka said that over 8,000 system messages can be sent for the equivalent of a high-res photo. This is good news for employees who have to run the system on their personal phones, but even so, many parents have opted to only let their kids do text messaging while out of Wi-Fi access.

Trust but verify

It’s one thing for a teen or an employee to agree to not use their device while driving, but without a means of verifying that they’re sticking to this policy, you can’t enforce it. A popular recommendation for parents is to have their kids sign a pledge and then keep it in the car as a reminder — a passive solution at best.

“Most companies already have these policies,” Mike Veranka said, but there’s little in the way of proof that their rules are being followed (or not) unless an accident occurs and an investigation reveals the truth. Ideally, all vehicles would have the equivalent of a bathroom smoke detector on airplanes. You know you can’t smoke; if you do, you’re caught and fined; if you’re caught tampering with the detector, the repercussions are much worse.

For fleet managers, the Shellback could offer an instant visual confirmation that drivers are being compliant. Its three LEDs indicate the safe’s status: Green means the paired phone(s) is in the safe and the safe is closed, red means that either the paired phone is not in the safe or the safe is not closed, and yellow means the battery is low.

More than lives on the line

Saving lives is the key reason we should all be focused on reducing or eliminating distracted driving, but even when no one is killed or injured, accidents due to distraction can have a huge financial cost. According to OSHA, the average right now stands at $16,500 per accident, a number which increases to $74,000 when an injury is involved.

“There’s little in the way of proof that their rules are being followed (or not) unless an accident occurs and an investigation reveals the truth.”

According to the CDC, in 2013 almost one in five accidents in which an injury occurred was caused by distracted driving. So if a company experiences 10 injurious accidents per year, in theory, $148,000 of that cost could have been prevented through the elimination of distracted driving. Is that worth the $180 per vehicle per year monitoring fee for the Shellback? The Maguires are betting yes.

“For a large enough fleet, we could give the product away” Michael pointed out, and it would still be a very viable business model for Shellback.

Call the carriers

Ben Levitan is an expert in telecommunications, and has testified in court in a lot of distracted driving cases. He’s convinced that nothing less than a full ban on a phone’s communication functions while driving is needed, and that it’s a carrier’s responsibility to make that happen. “The phone company can place technology in their network (in one place),” Levitan told Digital Trends via email, “that will allow them to block texting, talking or data on all phones or even an individual phone while someone is driving.” After 30 years of working in the field, Levitan dismisses laws, apps, signed pledges, or even hands-free operation as workable solutions to the distracted driving problem, which he said is the equivalent of driving drunk. “I’m an expert in this area of distracted driving,” Levitan said, “I know what works and what doesn’t.”

Levitan thinks the Shellback Safe is clever idea, saying that, “It might be a good stop-gap approach.  The nice part is people are thinking about this problem.”

A safe bet

Is the Shellback Safe a good solution to the problem of distracted driving? Perhaps not. It seems crazy to force drivers to imprison their phones in a zippered case that will tattle on them if they reach for it.

But until we live in Levitan’s world of carrier-enforced lock-outs — which sounds even more frightening — it’s hard to think of a better way to solve the problem. Parents need a way to take the keys away if their kids aren’t being sensible behind the wheel, and companies need a way to prove they’ve done everything possible to prevent their drivers from becoming a danger to themselves and others.

The Shellback isn’t the solution we want — but it might just be solution we need.