Smart Phone Apps Help Stop Distracted Driving

New technology can help fight distractions.

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It's been worrisome enough that the drivers around you might be applying makeup, eating, talking on the phone, or texting. Now the guy in the next lane could be reading Zagat restaurant reviews on his GPS or, soon, updating his Facebook status ("OMG abt 2 crash! LOL!!!"). Carmakers continue to stuff new models with distracting devices; Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently wrote in his Fast Lane blog that new infotainment technology "just leaves me shaking my head."

But companies are also adding technology to prevent driver distraction, as well as the accidents it causes. A number of 2011 cars, from the affordable Ford Fiesta to the high-end Infiniti M, come with built-in hands-free phone systems that let drivers make and receive calls using only voice commands. The MyFord Touch system, available on the 2011 Ford Edge and slated for more models in 2012 (a similar system, MyLincoln Touch, is available on the 2011 Lincoln MKX), allows drivers to block incoming texts and calls while they're moving; just push the "Do Not Disturb" button on the home screen, and the system sends calls to voicemail and saves texts for later reading. The technology also makes it possible to use voice commands to switch radio stations. Both GM's OnStar and navigation systems on models such as the Cadillac SRX and Buick LaCrosse allow drivers to enter their destinations by speaking and then get audible turn-by-turn directions. (It's OnStar that will shortly add the Facebook updating feature, which also will rely on voice commands.)

For now, Ford is the only company to offer in-car call- and text-blocking, but smartphone apps like On the Move and tXtBlocker accomplish the same mission. With both apps, calls are sent straight to voicemail. For texts, On the Move works similarly to setting an away message on your computer. Before you get in the car, you select an automatic response to incoming texts, which are saved for later. The tXtBlocker app uses the phone's GPS system to detect its location and, if it's moving, its speed. Users (or their parents) can block text messages when the phone is moving fast enough to be in a car, or if the phone is in a specific location, like school. SafeCell, a similar app for the iPhone, rewards you with points, redeemable for gift cards at retailers like Amazon and Macy's, for the calls and texts you ignore.

Some cars also feature lasers or sensors that warn of impending collisions, and can even take steps to avoid them. Models from Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz, for example, beep or buzz or otherwise sound the alarm when the car drifts out of its lane. The Volvo XC60 can slow down and even stop if it's going 18 mph or less and senses an imminent crash. The Acura RL, MDX, and ZDX get the driver's attention by flashing "brake" on the instrument panel, beeping, and tugging on the seat belt. If there's no response, the car applies the brakes itself.