Phone block won't let teens talk and drive

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Plugged-in teens don't always have the willpower to ignore their cell phones while driving, so one company's solution is to take away that option.

Columbus-based insurer Nationwide has teamed up with a Canadian company, Aegis Mobility, which hopes to offer a service starting next year that informs a caller or texter that the intended recipient is driving and can't be reached at the moment. Meanwhile, the driver would be oblivious to the call and free to focus on driving.

"We're conditioned our entire life to answer the phone when it rings. You just have to answer the phone, or at least look at who's calling," said Dave Teater, co-founder and director of Aegis Mobility. The service "takes that whole decision-making process out of your hands."

A downloadable application, called DriveAssist, uses motion-sensing technologies to determine when someone is driving. There would be a feature to disable the service if the user is a passenger. "It's more than just speed -- we actually know what driving looks like," Teater said.

Wireless industry analyst Jeff Kagan said there seems to be a "screaming need" for technology such as this. "We're using technologies today that we think are cool, but they're also very distracting," Kagan said. "The next step is to make the technology less distracting, and that's what it sounds like this does."

When the Aegis technology is employed and the phone is in "driving" mode, callers can leave a voice mail, send an emergency alert or have the call connected when the driver is done. The phone would still be able to make and receive 911 calls, and other features, such as allowing some numbers to always come through, would allow for flexibility. "The inbound caller is informed why you're not answering the phone, and I think that's pretty critical," Teater said. "Depending on the urgency of the call, they've got options."

Aegis Mobility is working with cell phone carriers to offer the service to customers. Teater said he expects it to launch next year. The price depends on the wireless provider, but Teater expects the price to be $10 to $20 a month. So far, no carriers have signed on.

An AT&T spokesman said the company is not currently working with Aegis Mobility. Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Laura Merritt said Verizon has a different usage control available, allowing parents to determine what times a child may use a cell phone.

Nationwide conducted a survey of more than 1,500 people and found that 45 percent of those surveyed had been hit or nearly hit by someone using a cell phone while driving. The company has been studying distracted driving and will offer a discount to policyholders who adopt the service.

"Really, what we're trying to do is encourage the development of this technology," said Bill Windsor, associate vice president of safety at Nationwide. "We believe it will have an impact in saving lives and reducing crashes."

The service is geared toward businesses whose employees drive for the company, and parents of teenage drivers. "Kids live, eat and breathe text-messaging," Nationwide spokesman Charley Gillespie said. "This will actually answer the text message for them. They have such a compelling desire to answer an e-mail or text right away that they're risking their lives."

Teater has a personal stake in the issue. His son was killed in a car accident when another driver talking on a cell phone ran a red light. "You're just shell-shocked when that happens," he said. The accident prompted him to research the problem and eventually led to his involvement in the company.