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Can a 'Transit Mode' Stop Us From Texting While Driving?

A campaign suggesting users text a short code to friends before they drive is a start, but the solution to distracted driving is already built into our phones.

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A high-school senior practices on a texting-while-driving simulator. (Kentucky Country Day School)

In one way (maybe the only way), flying is easier than it used to be. Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration relaxed its ban on using electronic devices on airplanes. Since then, flight attendants have all but abandoned any pretense about requiring passengers to switch their portable electronic devices off or to Airplane Mode, even during the parts of a flight that are still subject to some FAA strictures. For phone addicts, this is great news, since the ban never made much sense from a technological perspective, and because hold on I need to check Twitter.

This development leaves us with Airplane Mode itself, a familiar toggle built into every mobile and tablet operating system that no longer feels so useful. But rather than let this function slip away as a digital anachronism, we ought to seize it as an opportunity. And by "we," I mean a different federal agency, namely the Department of Transportation.

The idea isn't mine alone: I have to tip my hat to Texas country great Robert Earl Keen. Recently, he's appeared in commercial spots for AT&T advertising the provider's new gigabit fiber Internet service in Austin. Over the last couple of days, the company has been promoting a tweet from @RobertEarlKeen1 about its "It Can Wait" campaign—so I guess I need to tip my hat to AT&T as well.

The pride of Kerrville, Robert Earl Keen. (Ben Houdijk/Flickr)

The campaign is a public proposal for a common shorthand to prevent distracted driving. The idea, to the extent that there is a specific prescription, is pretty simple. Before you get behind the wheel, you text "#X" to anyone with whom you've been texting to let that person know that you're driving and therefore unavailable.

That's a solid suggestion for a lot of reasons. There's plenty of room in the digital lexicon for shorthand and conceptual mapping rn, tbqh. And texting while driving is a large enough crisis that it merits a prominent project X: More than 3,300 people were killed in distracted-driving accidents in 2012, while some 421,000 people were injured. Plus, #X is easy to remember.

Bless Robert Earl Keen's soul, but this campaign really doesn't reach far enough. Actively sending a #X text to a friend (or friends) doesn't really resemble the way that we deal with similar situations in other realms of our digital lives. When we don't plan to get back to email for a while, we set an auto-reply. When we leave our desks for lunch, we set our chat status to away. Any can't-text-I'm-driving notification should work the same way: automatically. 

Crucially, the distracted drivers who are most prone to accidents may be engaged in several text conversations at once. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drivers in their twenties make up 27 percent of the distracted drivers involved in fatal car accidents. The cohort with the largest share of distracted drivers is the 15–19 age group, which is also the part of the population most fully integrated into the texting Matrix. 

So here's a modest proposal: Let's turn Airplane Mode into Transit Mode. Build in a couple of options under Transit Mode. One might be similar to the way that Airplane Mode currently shuts off all inbound and outbound data (also a handy way to quickly charge your phone, by the way). But another function might work a bit more like an auto-reply, a way to send a text response (perhaps a #X) to contacts who try to reach you without notifying you that someone's trying to reach you. (Because you are driving, biking, or otherwise distracted.)

Parents, exes, significant others: There are many people who might object to receiving a #X reply to a text. (Those people probably aren't keen on getting no reply at all, either.) And there are certainly circumstances in which you might not want to let everyone who asks know you're engaged in #X activity. Personally, I'd rather check my texts when they come in before I decide how to respond—and, actually, I'd much rather just text this one quick thing nbd and so what if I'm driving? That's the problem, of course. No one thinks that he's a distracted driver when he's driving distractedly. 

The AT&T campaign gets at one part of the issue: It's a lot easier to type out "#X" than "I'm driving to Taco Cabana brb." But a minor, multimodal improvement on Airplane Mode would prevent drivers from ever seeing that "Yo pick me up a burrito ultimo" response that inevitably leads to a hasty conversation—one that drivers can't afford to engage in but never seem able to resist. 

One day, when cars drive themselves, distracted driving won't be the same issue. On the other hand, if lawmakers can require in-car breathalyzers for certain drivers, they might could consider a solution that prevents drivers from receiving texts or calls altogether (barring certain emergency conditions, of course).

In the meantime, a little paternalism from mobile providers might help drivers put their urgent digital lives out of sight and out of mind.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.