Why doesn't Apple end texting and driving?

October 3, 2016

We're in the midst of a distracted driving crisis, and mobile phones are largely to blame. Motorists young and old can't seem to resist the temptation to check text messages, email, and social media when they're behind the wheel.

As the New York Times recently noted, mobile networks and phone manufacturers both possess technology to keep drivers from using their devices. Apple, for example, received a patent in 2008 for a service that disables certain iPhone functions like text messaging when those devices determine that the owner is driving.

Unfortunately, none of the major companies--not Apple, Google, Samsung, AT&T, Verizon, none of them--have deployed that kind of technology to end distracted driving. The question is: why?

Here are a few of the reasons:

1. Potentially bad press and reduced sales: No company wants to be seen as the big, bad nanny-state enforcer, taking away our rights to do not-so-responsible things with the stuff we own. In the highly competitive mobile phone market, the aversion to that kind of PR nightmare is doubly strong.

2. Complications with the technology: Handset makers have to juggle myriad agreements that lay out service standards, access for app-makers, and more. Mobile networks have to do the same. Curtailing access to certain functions could violate those agreements. For example, it might run counter to contractual obligations for Apple to disable Facebook notifications on its own. That leaves us with a loosely patrolled ecosystem, making it harder to institute restraints.

3. The view that it's the driver's responsibility: In the U.S., we often tend to believe that people should have the widest possible range of choices about their behaviors. You want to eat a diet of nothing but trans fats? Dig in. You don't want to wear a motorcycle helmet? Roll on.

It's only when those choices begin to affect others that we want the government to intervene--for example, with laws that prevent smoking in bars and restaurants to reduce exposure to second-hand smoke.

Unfortunately, we haven't yet turned the corner on distracted driving, despite the fact that it's a growing safety hazard. According to the most recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving is a factor in at least ten percent of U.S. fatalities--roughly 3,200 deaths in 2014. Many of those killed aren't sitting in the driver's seat.

Change a-coming?

A lawsuit recently filed in Texas could help move things in the right direction. The suit stems from a 2013 crash in which a driver was checking messages on her iPhone and rammed her truck into an SUV. The driver of the SUV was killed, and a child passenger was paralyzed.

The plaintiffs have named Apple as a defendant. Whether their arguments can persuade a judge remains to be seen--and by some estimates, the chances appear unlikely. 

However, the court's decision may be less relevant than the fact that the case has made its way into the headlines. Public pressure could force Apple, AT&T, and others in the mobile phone industry to take proactive steps to curb distracted driving.

Our take

If phone manufacturers and mobile networks have the tools to reduce distracted driving accidents, injuries, and deaths in a responsible manner, they should use them. Apple should lead the way.

We often give Apple a tough time for its proprietary tendencies, and we rag on the company's legions of fanboys and fangirls. But the irony is, that kind of die-hard dedication to the Apple brand could change the tone of the debate around distracted driving. After all, Apple is the company that's finally leading us away from our wired headphones.

Ditching the headphone jack is a troubling move for some folks, but it's clearly the way that the technology is moving. Apple isn't the first company to remove the jack, but it's definitely the biggest. It's the 800-pound gorilla that can get the job done because iPhone users are remarkably loyal. They're going to adapt, and when they do, wireless headphone technology will advance, and the devices will become NBD.

If Apple did the same with distracted driving tech, we have a feeling that fans and foes alike would follow.

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