It was only a matter of time before one of the wireless carriers made a stand against distracted driving. With its Drive First app, Sprint fires the first shot in a heated battle that pits safety advocates against the consumer electronics companies and automakers that are pushing new technologies. It's a fight where the lines of conflict are sometimes vague.
Thumbs up to Sprint for providing Drive First — even if it's only available to the wireless carrier's subscribers. But thumbs down to Sprint for making its customers pay for it.
A Dent in Driver Distraction
Drive First could help put a dent in the 20 percent of injury crashes that a 2009 NHTSA study attributes to distracted driving. And it could help prevent some of the 2,600 annual traffic deaths that a Harvard study says are caused by drivers using cell phones. While this app is aimed at any Sprint subscriber who is driving while using a mobile phone, parents of teen drivers — the age group with the greatest proportion of distracted drivers — will especially appreciate the peace of mind this app provides.
If you're a Sprint subscriber, you can register at this Web site to access a list of phones on your account and receive detailed instructions on how to get the Drive First app. A software download is required to activate the service on existing phones. All Sprint Android smartphones launching in the third quarter of this year will have the Sprint Drive First app already installed. Drive First for BlackBerry and Windows 7 devices will be available in coming months. For all devices, the cost of using the app is $2 per month, per phone.
Locking Out Calling
The app uses a phone's GPS capability to lock out calling features once the car exceeds 10 mph. Incoming calls go directly to voicemail, with a message informing callers that the Sprint customer is currently behind the wheel. Incoming text messages receive automatic responses, and all distracting alerts are silenced while the phone is locked.
The phone will also automatically disconnect any current calls. The home screen will display 911 and exit buttons to override the app once a vehicle is moving. If the owner of the phone is a passenger in a car, bus or train, she can override the lockout feature.
Parents can also program a phone to receive notification when someone overrides Drive First on any of the registered phones. In addition, owners can input up to five phone numbers that will ring through when the phone is locked. They also can allow three apps (such as for navigation, music or weather) to remain operable.
When Drive First no longer detects movement, it unlocks and the phone resumes full functionality. If the driver is stuck in a traffic jam, the app makes sure the car has been idle for a few minutes before it unlocks. It relocks when traffic speeds up to 10 mph again.
While only a portion of all U.S. drivers are Sprint subscribers and the carrier ranks No. 3 in the U.S., this app may motivate other carriers to follow suit. That might put more than just a dent in these sobering statistics: Drivers using phones are four times as likely to cause a crash, according to NHTSA.
And with a 2009 New York Times poll stating that 50 percent of Americans believe that texting behind the wheel should be punished at least as harshly as drunk driving, similar technology may be required on all phones before long. But we'd like to see this app — and others like it from wireless carriers — become a cost-free feature in the future.