Today In Apps: SafeCell Promises Prizes To Help Combat Distracted Driving

November 1, 2010


By now, everyone should be pretty clear on the dangers of distracted driving -- specifically, the danger of using a mobile phone behind the wheel. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is working with automakers to combat the problem, but the car companies can't do it alone. Now, a new app called SafeCell wants to lend a hand.

SafeCell runs on iPhone and Android devices, and it aims to curb distracted driving in a couple of ways. First and foremost, it intercepts calls and text messages before they reach you (well, at least on Android phones). When it's enabled, SafeCell autoresponds to calls and texts with a message letting the caller/texter know that you're driving and can't be reached. SafeCell also uses your handset's built-in GPS to notify you of state and local laws regarding using your phone while driving. And SafeCell keeps track of your phone habits on the road, awarding points for keeping your mobile unused; you can then exchange those points for discounts at a growing number of retailers, including Amazon, Eddie Bauer, and Williams-Sonoma.

But there is also a downside -- several, in fact.

First, the cost: at $11.99 SafeCell is hugely pricey for an app. And that's $11.99 per year. Company founders Tina Pantoja and Scott Taylor seem like very nice people, but they may need to refresh themselves on the trend toward free things. That doesn't mean that folks can't turn a profit on an app, but they need to be creative about how they do it -- for example, by using the freemium model.

Second is the activation. When SafeCell is enabled on an Android set, it launches automatically when it detects that the phone is travelling faster than five miles per hour. (SafeCell has to be launched manually on the iPhone.) The app can be overridden -- assuming you remember that it's active -- but there's no override feature for callers, allowing them to reach users in case of an emergency. That might not sound so bad to the safety-minded, but keep in mind that the phone has no way of knowing whether you're behind the wheel or not. In other words: if you're a passenger in a car, or on a bus or train, the app will launch for you, too.

Third is the potential battery drain. Apps like SafeCell that rely heavily on persistent GPS data have a huge impact on battery life. On the company's website, a FAQ responds to this concern: "Extended use of the application can reduce battery power however, we have found that most users plug in their phones while in the car, reducing or eliminating the risk of depleting the batteries power completely." We don't see any statistical data there, so we're going to assume it's mostly anectotal. And even if it's true, we'd bet that rule doesn't apply to passengers who've enabled the device.

Our take?

SafeCell is a great idea, and Pantoja and Taylor have their hearts in the right place. But we don't envision SafeCell taking off in a big way -- partially because it's intrusive, but mostly because of the price. It could, however, find a niche market among protective parents who want to enable it on their kids' mobile phones.

On the upside, the ideas behind SafeCell are strong, and in the right hands, they could probably be reshaped into a more workable form. Frankly, we'd be surprised if a similar app didn't soon roll out for OnStar, Ford Sync and other OEM systems. An in-dash arrangement would address some of SafeCell's shortcomings, since it could be offered for free (or included as part of a subscription service), and it would render battery drain a non-issue. There's still the question of driver compliance to address, but hey, we can't solve everything.

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