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posted on February 26th, 2018

Eric Madia is Vice President of Auto Product at Esurance, where he is responsible for designing the company’s auto product lines. Eric has 22 years of experience in the industry, focused primarily on the underwriting, pricing, and innovation of auto insurance products. You can follow him on Twitter @Erictheactuary.


As the world grows more and more connected, the law is still catching up to the reality of mobile devices and their impact on safe transportation. And for good reason — the statistics on distracted driving-related accidents are worth considering. In a recent Esurance survey, a whopping 58% of drivers admitted to occasional or frequent distracted driving.

In 2015, distracted driving was responsible for 3,477 deaths and 391,000 injuries nationwide, with an estimated 660,000 drivers using smartphones behind the wheel, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Even though technology is responsible in large part for this problem, it might also be able to offer solutions to the problem.  

Unpacking “distracted driving”

Driving distractions can be visual, manual, cognitive, or some combination of the three. A visual distraction is when you are looking at something other than the road; a manual distraction is when you take one or more hands off the wheel to perform some non-driving task; and a cognitive distraction is when you are mentally preoccupied — like when you’re listening to the radio or talking to passengers.

Texting and checking social media on your phone involve all three forms, which is what makes it particularly dangerous. Nearly all drivers surveyed by Esurance (91%) agree that texting while driving is distracting, yet more than half of daily commuters still do it.

Laws are catching up with tech

While no state has a ban on all types of cell phone use, 14 states have outlawed handheld phone use behind the wheel, 38 states ban all use by novice drivers, and 47 have banned texting while driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

California in particular has blazed the legal trail with even more stringent requirements for in-car phone use. A 2017 law requires that your phone be mounted on the dashboard without obstructing the windshield (if you’re using it for GPS, say) and that you only use one finger to touch or swipe.

What’s on the horizon for law enforcement

We can likely expect law enforcement to start using tech to implement safe driving laws in the near future. A mobile app called Textalyzer, still in development, is a tool that tracks and times mobile phone activity. A police officer could use it to sync the driver’s phone with the officer’s mobile device to see exactly what a driver was doing on their phone — and when.

Some lawmakers are pushing for it, while privacy advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union have reservations. Whether or not it gets implemented remains to be seen, but either way, it’s safe to expect that police are getting “smarter” when it comes to enforcing the law.  

Another prototype in the works involves a key fob that syncs to Bluetooth and shuts off the phone when the car is turned on. It’s not on the market yet, but don’t be surprised if you see this tech hitting a road near you in the near future.

Can tech keep us safe?

The short answer: yes and no. Some apps seek to simplify hands-free phone functions with voice commands and a simpler interface. Unfortunately, voice applications don’t necessarily help because they create a cognitive distraction. One study found that both manual and vocal methods appear to have an equivalent impact on reaction times and driver performance.

According to the National Safety Council, there is no safe way to use a cell phone behind the wheel, as drivers are potentially only half-aware of their surroundings when engaged in a conversation.

That said, there are still some effective apps out there. AT&T’s DriveMode app silences alerts and calls, automatically turning on when you’re driving at least 15 miles per hour and shutting off when you stop. Others have similar features that are designed to be used by families or companies to enforce distraction-free driving. Some phones even have a feature that allows you to customize your “Do Not Disturb” settings and sync to your Bluetooth.  

What you can do

There are also non-tech solutions and campaigns to combat distracted driving. AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign offers a pledge in hopes that drivers will stop texting and driving. Similarly, the National Highway Traffic Association has launched stoptextsstopwrecks.org. Ultimately, the consensus appears to be that the ability to multitask while driving is a myth.

Here are a few ways you can avoid phone-related distracted driving:

  • Silence your phone, taking (hands-free) calls only in the case of emergencies
  • Program your GPS before you head out
  • Use a phone-disabling app when driving
  • If you have to take a call, pull over somewhere safe before answering
  • Let passengers take calls for you

Whether you use technology or good old-fashioned common sense to combat distractions in the car, a few simple measures can keep you (and those around you) safe.

Eric Madia is Vice President of Auto Product at Esurance, where he is responsible for designing the company’s auto product lines. Eric has 22 years of experience in the industry, focused primarily on the underwriting, pricing, and innovation of auto insurance products. You can follow him on Twitter @Erictheactuary.