/ 5 October 2015

Apple Can Help Fix Distracted Driving

I’m a stubborn guy. But over the past few years, two occurrences have completely changed my routine set of

  1. I got a smartphone.
  2. I started a family.

If you’ve undergone either – and data suggests most American adults have
gone through at least one of those – you understand how transformative it is.

Hey, I don’t have to stare into space on the subway anymore! I can read
angry tweets!

Hey, I don’t have to spontaneously go the movies on a Tuesday night
anymore! I get to struggle to put pajama pants on a kid!

I’m not here to extoll the virtues of, defend, recommend, or decry either
experience – each is what you make of it. I will say this: I don’t plan on
changing anything. My phone and my family are a part of my life now.

Interestingly (to me), sometimes the two experiences inform each other.

I’m an iPhone guy. With the recent release of new phones and the newest iOS
software, it’s been easy to reflect on how far Apple’s
progressed during the smartphone era. Their technological and design leadership is
well-documented, but they’ve also begun to lead in a humanitarian sense. Think
about these things:

• They’ve continually made progress on negating the environmental impact of
their products and their physical footprint.

• They’ve committed to cultural diversity in the workplace, and are being
transparent about their progress.

• They’re placing a moral value on cultural ideas like acceptance, accessibility and kindness.

Apple’s status in modern society is such that their actions and positions have
a great deal of power. When they come out in support of environmental responsibility,
or cultural diversity, they move the needle. Apple – more than any other company
– is helping to affect progressive change in our culture.1

Likewise, Apple’s values align very closely with those I’m trying to
teach my own kids. I believe in what they’re saying and doing.

And so we arrive at distracted driving, something that involves both my phone and my family. I’ve been guilty of it, never more so
than in the whiz-bang (pre-kid) days right after I got my very first iPhone 3G. I suddenly had the world in my pocket! How could I not peek every so often? Yes, I’ve fought myself not to look at my phone while driving. I’ve told myself “I’m not texting, I’m
just looking up a song to play.” I’ve made the “How is eating a burger from
McDonald’s on the highway any different?” argument.

It’s difficult to admit that my pushback was unjustifiable, and that I was wrong. But whenever I did anything more
than speak into my phone while driving, that’s exactly what I was: wrong. I’ve tried to evolve, and I will continue to. Having
kids and a smart, tough wife has sped that process up significantly.
I’ve realized that I have to be a careful driver for the sake of everyone on the road,
and, so crucially, for the sake of my children and my family. When I’m driving, I’m their protector and, more than
that, my actions are their compass.

Using your phone with your hands while you drive is wrong, and in most places
it’s illegal. A great many people don’t do it. But others ignore the moral
imperatives, and the laws, that ask them not to. Enough people, in fact, that accidents and fatalities from distracted driving are heartbreakingly common.

Maybe the right thing to do is too easy not to do.

Here’s where I think Apple could do something directly in line with its
progressive, moral mindset. It could make doing the right thing easier for lots of people.

It would be really simple.


That’s it.

iPhones, and all modern smartphones, have the technology to do this –
namely, advanced motion detection and interactive voice control. Saving lives really could be as simple as
the alert above.

Let’s break it down. Using the phone’s GPS, accelerometer and M-class motion chip
(all of which most iPhones in the wild have now), an iPhone can figure out when its owner has started a trip in a
moving vehicle. There’s probably a very nuanced algorithm to be had, but
let’s say for the sake of argument, it’s whenever the phone determines that
it’s moving faster than 10 MPH laterally and it’s not detecting footsteps. Whenever
those conditions are initiated, the alert pops up.

• If you’re a passenger, you simply tap to assert that you’re not
driving. That’s it. The phone trusts you and you’re free to use it

• If you are driving, you can quickly tap the big, blue button to enter handsfree
“Siri only” mode. If you don’t do anything, a countdown (say, 10
seconds) puts the phone in this mode anyway. “Siri only” mode would lock
the phone’s display and text input methods. It would still allow you to make
and take calls with your voice, and do anything else that Siri lets you do, like hear and compose text messages. If you
have Apple CarPlay (as I’m sure more and more of us will in the near future),
everything runs through that.


When the phone detects that your trip is over, it takes itself out of handsfree mode, but you can also do it at any time: wake up your phone and tap the “I’m not driving” button, or simply say “Siri, I’m done driving.” Boom. Phone back to normal.

A few points sure to arise:

Could I stop “Siri mode” during a trip?

Yes, just like you can take your seatbelt off during a trip. You’d be completely in charge. This feature is meant to reinforce good behavior, not to force your phone operate against your will.

How will the phone know my trip is over, and that I’m not, say, at a

The same way it detects you’ve started moving in a vehicle. A combination of
your vector, speed and whether or not footsteps are present.

What about if I’m on a train, or a subway, or an escalator, or a roller

A few false positives are to be expected, though I’m sure Apple’s
detection algorithms could get pretty sophisticated to the point where they were
relatively rare. The situation could also be aided by another recent invention –
iBeacons. A train car or an amusement park ride with a beacon could send a simple
message to phones letting them know that the alert wasn’t necessary for users
in close proximity.

(Be careful with those escalators, though.)

I don’t want Apple to know when I’m driving.

Apple wouldn’t know; all the intelligence necessary to do this is on the device. Nothing ever needs to be communicated to a server or third party. Apple is getting good at doing smart things with sensitive information (like location and health data) without that data ever leaving your phone.

Won’t this get annoying?

Maybe. Are you annoyed when your car bing-bing-bings to tell you to put on
your safety belt? Or when your in-dash GPS makes you pull over in order to use it? Or, for that matter, every time somebody who cares about you says “Hey, drive carefuly, and please let me know when you get there” before a trip?

Sure, kind of.

In 2013, over 400,000 Americans were injured in accidents related to distracted
driving. Three thousand people died. These statistics repeat every year.2

What if a simple opt-out dialog cut those numbers in half? Or even by ten percent? A trade-off — being asked to tap (or ignore) an alert every so often, in exchange for actual lives saved — seems pretty worthwhile to me.

Won’t people lie?

Yes, some will. But many, many won’t. Consider the person who doesn’t really
approve of texting while driving, but they’re at a red light and a text from
a good friend arrives with a really adorable picture. It would be rude not acknowledge it, right?
It would be so easy to type in “haha! so cute!” and hit send….

In that scenario, the bridge to “just a quick text back” isn’t as
tough to cross as it should be. But in a world where a user’s car trip starts with the
above alert, many of those same people, inherently moral people, would never have to
get into that situation. They’d accept the alert and subsequent handsfree mode as a normal part of using their phone, like unlocking it with a passcode or a fingerprint has come to be. The alert would reinforce good behavior at exactly the right moment to make a difference. It would make it easy for most of us to never be tempted to do something dangerous and wrong.

And if you’re the kind of person who would lie or not care, the alert has made
you take the very conscious, deliberate step of moving to a place many would consider morally and legally out of bounds. Those who
can stomach that will no doubt continue to do so, but it will much easier to draw a
line between that small group and users who don’t explicitly want to do the wrong thing.

Consider how Apple shapes us, its community of users. As mentioned above, there’s the
guidance on moral issues like preserving the environment, promoting cultural diversity, and fostering
inclusion. And then there are also practical steps that Apple takes on our behalf: they
made passcodes opt-out instead of opt-in and introduced fingerprint detection on iPhones to
reduce the risk of a user losing their phone or their personal information. They’ve taken
extra steps to encrypt and anonymize user data, without the user needing to, or even needing to know to, ask for it. And
they’ve enabled two-factor authentication for anyone trying to access anything
personal in the cloud.

Apple knows that powerful technology makes users vulnerable, and takes steps to protect them. This goes beyond smart business. Apple feels protective of its users. Apple considers all of these actions part of a larger moral responsibility to its user community.

It occurred to me that the way I feel about my family, the steps I’d take and the behavioral changes I’d make in the name of keeping them safe – overlaps a lot with the way Apple thinks about its users.

Apple feels a sense of stewardship towards their user community. They feel a responsibility to show users a clear path through the rocky, trecherous challenges presented by technology. This dedication to users is what led to the iPhone, and what guides them on its development. It’s also a lot like what parents do for their families.

Apple is not responsible for its users’ behavior while driving. We’re all responsible for our own actions. But –
especially given its track record – I’d argue that the company does have a moral responsibility to take
steps that will make us collectively safer while using the devices it so carefully crafts.

A recent article at Asymco posited that what makes users love Apple products is that the
products help their owners be better people. The resulting gratitude, it argued, is repaid by users in the form of affection for the Apple brand.

I can’t think of an issue more ripe for Apple’s clear-eyed guidance than that of
distracted driving. They can help us be better, and can make being better easier.

My family helped me figure this out. But it shouldn’t take a family, or constantly grappling with the weight of personal responsibility, to make a smartphone owner a better driver. It could, and should, be simple. If Apple leads on this issue, lots of lives, and families will benefit. And I think we’d end up loving them for that.

Find Mark on Twitter at @M_Willis. Steering wheel icon courtesty of the Noun Project and designer Rowan Kelly.

  1. Somewhat ironically, they have achieved this cultural power by being one of the most successful capitalist enterprises of all time.

  2. Source: distraction.gov, a U.S. government effort to curb distracted driving. The numbers are U.S. totals only. Smartphones are obviously a global phenomenon, and there is no reliable way to measure the global impact of smartphone-related distracted driving.