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Why Isn't There A Better Way To Text While Driving?

It’s deadly. It’s irresponsible. And we’ve all done it. Before you commute home think about this: Why isn’t there a better solution to texting while driving?

Last night in Los Angeles, celebrity plastic surgeon Dr Frank Ryan drove his car over a cliff while sending a text to Twitter about his his border collie. (Quite possibly this tweet.)

Dr Ryan’s death is a shame – mitigated only by the fact that he didn’t hurt anyone else. (His dog Jill survived the accident, even.) But it’s impossible not to feel a bit of schadenfreude at his self-inflicted death while doing something so trivial. “Darwin Award!” we chuckle. But we’ve all done it at times – or something equally as distracting while driving.

“COW”, a public-service video from the UK about the dangers of texting while driving.

Texting while driving is especially dangerous, not simply because we’re distracted, but because it necessitates taking one’s eyes off the road often for many seconds at a time. Anything done while driving is a distraction – looking at an iPod, searching through a purse, even talking on a Bluetooth headset with eyes on the road – simply because it distracts us from the task at hand: piloting a two-ton machine at speeds considered appropriate for only daredevils and experts just a century before. (Tom Vanderbilt’s book Traffic addresses this at length, for those interested in statistics.)

But I’ve done it. I suspect many of you have done it. Just last weekend, careening south through rural Missouri in a rented Pontiac, I sent and received a dozen text messages with my sister as we coordinated the logistics of a family emergency. I was upset, tired and finding being a safe driver difficult enough without trying to peck out letters on a glowing touchscreen with my thumb. But I did it because that’s what I had to do. I could have pulled over each time. But who does that really?

A quick glance at a phone is probably not much more dangerous than a quick glance at anything else. Which is to say: dangerous but routinely so. Text input, on the other hand, is a nightmare. Car & Driver tested texters on a closed course and found they were more distracted – more deadly – than drivers who were drunk but keeping their eyes on the road.

My own strategy is to hold the phone at the top of the steering wheel while typing in the hope that my brain will still be able to recognise dangers in front of me, even if my vision is focused on a little screen on a much closer plane. It’s probably not a very sound theory, and I’ve been fortunate to have never really had the opportunity to put it to the test. I have found myself wandering out of my own lane when I try to keep the phone in my lap to prevent anyone from seeing me texting while driving, swapping embarrassment for recklessness.

There are several iPhone and Android apps that advertise voice-to-text services, but reviews seem middling at best – so poor that I didn’t even bother to try any of them. The speech-recognition app that I use on my iPhone, Dragon Dictation, works incredibly well, but requires a 3G connection as well as copying-and-pasting from one app into another. That’s hardly better than simply typing.

Type in “SMS” in the iTunes App Store and you’ll find apps that let you text other countries or use voice to trigger pre-scripted messages, but nothing that properly replaces or extends the official Apple “Messages” app to add voice recognition.

Apple’s recent acquisition of mobile assistant app Siri indicates the iPhone maker thinks that voice control is going to be a big part of the future of mobile interfaces, but it’s not yet integrated into iOS in any way that matters. (‘Voice Control’ on the iPhone is almost comically unable to recognise things like names from your own contact list.)

Google’s ‘Voice Actions for Android‘ may point the way – you can use Voice Actions to send a text – but it’s Froyo (Android 2.2) only. Plus it still requires you to look at your phone quite a bit to confirm that the voice recognition has worked reasonably well enough to get the meaning of your message across.

I can’t envision an optimal solution short of bespoke systems that integrate text messages into heads-up displays, for instance – solutions that cause as many problems as they solve. And thinking about this all morning, looking at the statistics, has reaffirmed my belief that texting while driving should be avoided at all costs. (Killing myself is one thing; killing someone else because I was irresponsible is another.) I’ll use a little of that time on the side of the road with my hazards on wishing that there were a safer, easier compromise.

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