Reducing driver distraction with a carrot, not a stick

A new approach by automakers and providers of smartphone operating systems could be an important step in the effort to reduce the dangers of distracted driving.

Google's Android Auto and Apple's CarPlay don't just physically link a driver's smartphone with a vehicle. They also disable the screen of the hand-held device while it's connected.

With Android Auto -- which will be available this year in some new autos -- drivers can use vehicle controls to text, make phone calls, navigate and play music from streaming services, mostly by voice commands. That allows the driver to keep most of the smartphone's functionality without having to fiddle with it inside a moving vehicle.

Research shows that the most distracting part of making a call or sending a text while driving is taking one's eyes off the road.

Efforts by legal authorities to reduce driver distraction include bans on texting and making hand-held phone calls while driving. But drivers widely flout such laws.

The appeal of this new approach is that it's a carrot instead of a stick. Developers hope that fully integrating personal phones into vehicles will make them more appealing to use than as hand-held devices.

The approach by Apple and by Google and its partners in the Open Automotive Alliance is not a panacea. Developers are still tinkering with which functions to allow. The Android Auto and Apple systems may help reduce distracted driving but won't eliminate it.

Still, the combination of laws prohibiting some activities and encouraging the use of less distracting technology could ease the burden on drivers and save lives.

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