We've all heard the statistics: You're 23 times more likely to be involved in an auto accident if you're reading or sending text messages. The number of automotive deaths resulting from distracted driving now rivals that of drunk driving. But here's one I hadn't heard: _11 teenagers die every day thanks to texting while driving._
My teenager is a driver. I repeatedly warn her against texting while behind the wheel, but that won't stop someone else from T-boning her car. Or mine, for that matter. Or yours.
So, yeah, this stuff keeps me up at night. Sure, other forms of distracted driving--fiddling with the radio, putting on makeup, even talking on the phone--can be dangerous as well, but we can at least lessen the threat posed by phones. And that starts by exercising a little common sense and taking advantage of some available tools.
1. Mount your phone at eye level
First stop on the Common Sense Express: Every time you look at your phone, you're taking your eyes off the road. If your phone is somewhere down low, like in a cupholder, now you're taking your eyes wayyy off the road. And for a longer period of time.
Contrast that with a phone that's mounted up on your dashboard, more or less at eye level. Now you can steal a quick glance while keeping your eyes in the vicinity of where they belong: pointed at the road. It's the same principle as why pilots use a head mounted display.
There's another benefit that's almost as big: If you need to tap the screen, you can do so without actually having to pick up the phone and juggle it while attempting to operate it one-handed. Then scrambling to recover it from under the seat after you drop it. A mount allows you to interact with your phone hands-free. Er, hand-free. You know what I mean.
There are countless dashboard-mount options, many of them priced in the $5-$20 range. Some suction to your windshield or dashboard, others slip inside air vents or even CD-player slots. My Mustang's dashboard has a perfect open space just between two vents; I installed a magnetic mount that works with a thin metal plate attached to the backside of my case. It's a fantastic solution, and my out-of-pocket expense was about $8.
2. Do everything with your voice
Using your phone requires eyeballs and fingertips, right? Wrong. You can accomplish a lot without ever looking at or touching your device. That's thanks to the virtual assistants baked into Android and iOS.
For example, suppose you receive a text message while driving. Obviously your first instinct is going to be to glance at your phone, if not actually pick up the thing and tap out a response. (Seriously, please don’t do that.)
Or, you could just say this: "Hey, Siri. Read my messages." It continues to amaze me how few people know about this feature. What's great is that after Siri reads a message, she'll give you the option to reply to it--again, just by using your voice.
Android users can accomplish the same thing by saying, "OK, Google. Read my messages." Unfortunately, this works only with the native Messages app. (It's the same with Siri.) But Android users, at least, have third-party options that support third-party messaging apps. I'll explain more about them in the next section.
As an aside, you might need to enable OK Google or Siri to respond to your voice in Settings, depending upon what version of operating system you're running and how your phone is currently configured.
In the meantime, learn everything your phone can do via voice control, then take advantage of those features while driving.
3. Set up your own 'driver mode'
Both Android and iOS let you perform certain tasks using just your voice, but where's the toggle that automatically sends an "I'm driving, will reply later" response to incoming text messages? Where are the oversize media controls that kick in to replace the regular tiny ones? And the oversize fonts for easier at-a-glance reading of text messages?
Apple offers no such "driver mode" for iPhone users, but Google recently updated its Android Auto app to work on virtually all Android phones--meaning you do now have a safer way way to operate your phone while driving. Android Auto offers a large, touch-friendly interface for things like navigation and messaging, and it can automatically launch upon pairing with your car's Bluetooth stereo. For more details, be sure to read the 18 things you need to know about Android Auto.
However, it has limitations. The app has an auto-reply option for incoming text messages, but you have to send that reply manually by tapping the screen. That's why I recommend looking to third-party "driver mode" options--especially if you're an iPhone user.
For example, Drivemode (Android) offers drivers an oversize, swipe- and voice-powered interface for all kinds of functions, including music, messaging and navigation. It can automatically tell when you're driving, overlay music controls on top of your preferred map app, and it can read and send text messages hands-free. Perhaps best of all, there's a do-not-disturb mode that ignores calls and texts and can send an auto-reply. Drivemode is available free of charge.
Also free, at least for basic functions: ReadItToMe, an app designed specifically to read text messages, callers' names, notifications and the like. It will automatically lower the volume of any music that might be playing, and it gives you the option of responding to messages with voice controls. But to use the latter feature you'll need to upgrade to the full version, which costs $2.79 via in-app purchase.
iPhone users have fewer options available, in part because Apple still limits developer access to certain areas of the operating system. AT&T Drivemode (no relation to the aforementioned Android app) can automatically tell when you're driving and even auto-send text replies -- but you need to be an AT&T customer. Verizon offers a similar service. Ultimately, it's going to be up to Apple to add a "car mode" that can handle tasks like these.
In the meantime, check out Open Road ($1.99), an iOS app that's similar to Drivemode for Android. Designed for the exact kind of dashboard-mount setup I described above, Open Road provides large icons for things like music, navigation and using your favorite apps and contacts. It offers its own navigation system but can also work with the likes of Waze and Google Maps. Likewise, it can link to your music library or Spotify.
Rules of the road
The goal here, of course, is to keep your eyes on the road as much as possible. Even one or two seconds spent looking at or interacting with your phone can lead to catastrophe--and some studies show that drivers often spend a full 5 seconds looking at their phones and away from the road.
Apple is long overdue to add a car mode to iOS, and Google's Android Auto has room for improvement. In the meantime, spend a few bucks to get your phone mounted up near eye level, learn to take advantage of voice commands, and install apps that can help keep you safer while driving. The life you save could be your own--or it could be mine, which I'd really appreciate.