You don’t have to be the parent of a teenage driver to have a special interest in any device that would make it impossible to use a cell phone while driving, but if you are, you’ll definitely want to know about this story. I strongly suspect it will also be of great interest to anyone who occasionally texts while driving and knows they should stop.
I fall into both of those categories, so I was especially intrigued to learn recently about a former engineer for NASA who has invented what many safety experts believe is the “holy grail” solution to distracted driving. I was also bothered (but not surprised) to hear why it’s not on the market after getting tremendous support from several key allies in this effort.
Scott Tibbitts is the engineer/entrepreneur who has worked on this amazing “gadget” for the past five years, and he and his company were recently featured in an article in the New York Times. It’s a captivating story, beginning with his inspiration for ending cell phone-related distracted driving. Tragically, a business executive with whom he was scheduled to meet one day in 2008 was killed hours before their meeting by a teenager who was texting while driving.
We all know that using a cell phone while driving can be extremely dangerous, and stories like that are too common. In fact, every day, nine people die on American roads because of someone who has been distracted by texting, talking or emailing on a cell phone. According to another story in Newsmax:
An estimated one in five crashes occurred through distracted driving, and 69 percent of drivers in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 64 said they talk on their cell phones and 31 percent say they read or send text messages or email while driving, according to the CDC. This includes nearly half of all U.S. high school student drivers.
Safety experts have long searched for the perfect solution to this problem, but so far, the cell phone apps that have been created to stop distracted driving are not widely used and the state laws that have been passed to motivate drivers to do the right thing are regularly ignored.
So, when Tibbitts was able to find a way to use a “telematics” port found in all cars manufactured since 1996 to shut down phone use when a car is moving, he quickly drew the attention of these experts. However, it was the attention and support he drew from some in the insurance and cell phone industries that led many to believe his device might finally be the perfect solution.
Tibbitts was able to convince insurance giant, American Family Insurance, to invest a significant amount of money in his venture. He also got Sprint to allow his company to use its networks to stop texts. It was the first time this had happened, so it looked like everything was lining up perfectly for the device to be brought to market.
Unfortunately, just when all of the technological hurdles were cleared, an old, familiar problem popped up to keep it off the market: lawsuit fears.
As the Times reports, Sprint executives worried about:
“what would happen if the technology let one text slip through, and someone reading the message became involved in a crash. That could be a financial liability for the company, and a tragedy. ‘If that one message does get through, and someone understood, “I bought this and I’ll be safe,” what does that mean for our brand and our business?’” said a vice president for business and product development at Sprint.
A spokesperson for Sprint now says: “It’s a matter of working out the legal issues. The legal uncertainty — that’s the major issue.” So far, the daunting legal hurdle is the only one they haven’t been able to clear.
It’s certainly not the first time that legal concerns have robbed American consumers of a wonderful product, but it is especially disturbing to hear that once again, an amazing invention could potentially save three thousand lives a year and prevent more than 300,000 injuries is stalled in its tracks because of lawsuit fears.