Bonnie Cha

Apps That Curb the Temptation to Text and Drive

Would you ever drive the length of a football field at 55 miles per hour blindfolded? Some daredevils might consider it, but what if the field was filled with obstacles like people and cars?

I’m guessing most people’s answer would be a resounding “no,” but that’s pretty much what you’re doing every time you text and drive.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, texting drivers are 23 times more likely to get into an accident than those who don’t. It’s no wonder that it’s now illegal to do so in 39 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Yet we still do it. Studies have shown that younger drivers are the biggest offenders, but adults are guilty of it, too. This past week, I checked out several apps designed to curb this dangerous activity: Text-Star by Cinqpoint, DriveScribe by Drive Power and DriveSafe.ly by iSpeech.

Each app handles the task a little differently. Text-Star sends automatic responses to incoming texts, so you don’t feel compelled to answer right away. Meanwhile, DriveScribe blocks incoming messages and calls when it detects you’re in a moving car. Finally, DriveSafe.ly allows you to receive texts, but reads them out loud, so you don’t have to look at your phone. They all worked well, but still require discipline on your part.

Text-Star is free, but it’s currently only available for Android smartphones. Cinqpoint said it hopes to offer an iOS version in the future.

textstar

I used it on my Nexus 4 and found it easy to use. The app offers three operating modes: Automatic, Manual and Passenger. I left it in Automatic mode most of the time, which sends auto-replies as soon as it detects that your car is moving faster than 10 mph (it does this by using your phone’s various sensors and radios).

Before you head out, you can select from a list of preset messages, such as “On the road, ttyl (talk to you later),” “At the movies, ttyl,” or you can write a custom message. Though primarily designed for in-car use, you can also use Text-Star for other situations, like when you’re in a meeting.

To test the app, I drove around an empty portion of a shopping mall parking lot and had my brother text me. The Nexus 4 chimed just as usual to let me know I had a new text, but I resisted the urge to check it, knowing that an automatic response was sent. My brother confirmed that he received my custom message.

There’s really nothing in TextStar that prevents you from checking or sending messages while in the car. Some apps, like Textecution ($30), require an unlock code from a parent or administrator. Cinqpoint says it believes that brings potential liabilities, but to help encourage good behavior, it is working with national insurance carriers to provide discounts. As you use the app, Text-Star takes note of whether or not you’re using your phone while on the road, and gives you a star rating. A good star rating can then potentially be used to lower insurance rates.

drivescribe

DriveScribe also uses rewards to encourage safer driving, and includes a number of useful tools for parents with teens who drive. Available for Android and iOS, the app blocks texts and incoming calls when a car is moving faster than 12 mph. There’s an auto-response feature, and messages appear once you’ve stopped. The app also offers an option to allow texts from certain numbers, such as a parent’s, even while in motion. All the features worked well on the Nexus 4.

DriveScribe also monitors other driving habits, including speed, and all the data is available to parents via a Web-based dashboard. Based on their behavior on the road, drivers are awarded points for each ride. These points can later be redeemed for rewards like discounts at national retailers, which are provided by a DriveScribe partner.

For example, 1,000 points gets you a $10 Amazon gift card. But to take advantage of rewards like this, you have to subscribe to one of DriveScribe’s paid plans, which start at $3 per month. Still, it might be worth it for parents who want to give their kids an incentive to be safer drivers.

For those moments when you can’t bear to be disconnected from text messages — say, if your wife is pregnant — DriveSafe.ly is a good option.

The free app reads incoming messages out loud, and automatically replies to the sender with a custom message. It’s available for Android, and a BlackBerry 10 version is coming next month. But there’s no iOS app. There’s also a Pro version ($10 for Android, $14 for BlackBerry) that adds the ability to reply by voice, though I’d argue that can be just as distracting as typing.

Upon launching DriveSafe.ly on my Nexus 4, I thought something was wrong with the app. This is because it only displayed a small image in the upper left-hand corner of the screen rather than the entire screen, but it still worked fine. ISpeech said this is something it’s planning to fix.

Screenshot_2013-05-08-21-21-47

Under the Settings menu, you can indicate what you’d like the app to read out loud, such as text, emails and sender’s name. This is also where you can write a message for your auto-response.

Using the same test method as the other two, DriveSafe.ly announced my brother’s name and read the message in a pleasant female voice. I was pretty impressed with the text-to-speech translation. The voice didn’t sound too robotic, and it didn’t horribly mangle the pronunciation of any names.

I’ll admit, by actually hearing the message, I was a little more tempted to grab my phone and respond, compared to the other two apps. But knowing that they received an automatic reply from the app saying that I was driving curbed the temptation.

These apps aren’t perfect solutions for completely stopping texting and driving, but they can certainly help, and are worth a test drive.


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik