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Feds want a ‘driver mode’ for smartphones to reduce driver distractions

smartphone driver mode distracted driving
It’s always rather unnerving to see a driver looking at their smartphone, especially if they’re hurtling along a highway at the time.

Indeed, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) believes the issue of distracted driving has become so serious it’s pressing smartphone makers to consider new ways of tackling it.

It’s not alway easy to prove that an accident was caused by a driver using their phone, but a number of reports in recent months, as well as surveys that look at handset use behind the wheel, suggest distracted driving is a growing problem.

While the NHTSA has long been making efforts to combat phone use in the driving seat, new guidelines published this week call on makers like Apple and Samsung to add a so-called “driver mode” that limits what someone can do on their phone when they’re behind the wheel, the NY Times reports.

The agency wants to see technology that automatically reduces a phone’s functionality and switches the display to a simplified interface when it detects the car is in motion. It could involve, for example, blocking video and prohibiting use of the keypad. The technology would also need to have the ability to target only the driver’s device so passengers’ handset functionality remained unaffected.

Some app developers have already been making efforts to encourage car owners to refrain from using their software while driving. Pokémon Go, for example, introduced an update in the summer that forced players to confirm they’re a passenger and not a driver when it detects the phone is inside a moving vehicle. Subsequent updates have made it even harder to play in such conditions, though a major drawback is that it affects passengers too, as well as those on other modes of transport such as trains.

Automakers, too, have been incorporating platforms such as Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto into their newer vehicles. CarPlay, touted by the Cupertino company as “a smarter, safer way to use your iPhone in the car,” reduces distraction by offering a limited number of apps via the vehicle’s built-in display, among them iMessage, Apple Maps, and Music. Importantly, the driver can interact via Siri, so they never have to take their eyes off the road. There are also ways drivers can use CarPlay and Android Auto even if their car doesn’t support the systems.

These are all steps in the right direction, but now the NHTSA’s guidelines indicate it wants smartphone makers to do more to prevent car owners from using their phones while driving.

“Your smartphone becomes so many different things that it’s not just a communication device,” Anthony Foxx, secretary of the Transportation Department, told the NY Times. “Distraction is still a problem. Too many people are dying and being injured on our roadways.”

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