Heath Ahrens may be on to something.
The New Jersey entrepreneur has developed a cell-phone application that reads incoming text and e-mail messages so drivers don't have to. The software turns the written messages into spoken words, with the goal of keeping drivers' eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel. Users can hear their messages, and their phones can be programmed to send an automatic reply, such as "I'll call you back when I'm not driving." Listening to the messages is more like listening to a car radio than engaging in a two-way conversation.
Admittedly, this adaptation is designed for hard-core texters, people who can leave no message unread even for a moment. The better solution would be doing what readers of a certain age may recall with some nostalgia, but "waiting" (w8ing) just doesn't seem to be in the vocabulary of the most serious cell-phoners.
Study after study has confirmed the dangers associated with using cell phones while driving. In 2006, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found cell phones were the most common distraction for drivers. Another study it released this summer, based on observing drivers for more than 6 million miles of travel, concluded -- no surprise -- that sending text messages while driving is even more dangerous than dialing or answering a cell phone. The study found truck drivers were 23 times more likely to be in an accident or near accident if they were texting. And, according to the American Automobile Association, a full 47 percent of teens text while driving.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a meeting with Post-Gazette editors earlier this month, said outlawing texting and the use of cell phones while driving is a goal of the Obama administration because safety is the No. 1 priority. Some states have imposed their own restrictions, but Pennsylvania is not among them.
Mr. LaHood will hold a summit this week with senior transportation officials, lawmakers, law enforcement representatives, academics and safety advocates. Mr. Ahrens' innovation -- which can be downloaded for free at www.DriveSafe.ly -- addresses part of the problem by keeping drivers' hands where they should be. It's not intended to solve the larger problem of distracted driving that can occur even when hands-free devices are used. We hope the meeting this week will produce more concrete steps to keep drivers' eyes and their attention on the road.