Hey, phone makers: Where's 'driving mode'?

Want to stop texting while driving? It's time the phone makers got involved, starting with building a "driving mode" into the software.

Molly Wood Former Executive Editor
Molly Wood was an executive editor at CNET, author of the Molly Rants blog, and host of the tech show, Always On. When she's not enraging fanboys of all stripes, she can be found offering tech opinions on CBS and elsewhere, and offering opinions on everything else to anyone who will listen.
Molly Wood
2 min read

This week, Michigan became the 23rd state to pass a law banning texting while driving. Oprah is urging people to observe a "No Phone Zone Day" Friday that would raise awareness about the distractions of using cell phones in cars. And Thursday, I appeared on CNBC's "Power Lunch" to talk about the potential dangers of distracted driving. Before my segment, "Power Lunch" ran a David Pogue segment based on this column that detailed apps that can help prevent you from texting or talking while driving. The whole flurry of activity, plus Pogue's post, got me wondering: where the heck are the cell phone makers in all this?

As I suggested in the CNBC segment, laws against texting or talking while driving are often spottily enforced and little more than PR stunts. But why should I have to buy an app that keeps me from texting while I'm driving? Why doesn't my Droid, my iPhone, my LG EnV, my Samsung Moment, or my giveaway little flip phone have a "driving mode" built in?

Help me help myself! CNET

Phone makers have encouraged all kinds of functions to help you talk hands-free, to some extent: Bluetooth headsets, pairing with your car stereo, simple speakerphone. But why not build in a function that would solve two basic problems: not talking on the phone at all, and letting someone who's calling or texting me know that I'm driving and I can't answer right now?

For people used to texting, specifically, it's instinctual to respond quickly to an incoming text--according to this Sprint-sponsored survey, those under 30 are "four times more likely to respond within minutes to a text message compared to a voice mail, and 91 percent respond to a text message within one hour."

I'm not under 30, but even I feel wired to respond to texts quickly, and therefore wired to assume the person who's texting me expects a quick response. It's really, really hard to ignore that incoming text beep, especially if, say, I'm creeping along in slow traffic.

Cell phone makers could help alleviate that need to respond by building in a simple auto-responder that I can set for incoming texts, and even a response voice message I can record for when I'm driving. Call it "driving mode," just like airplane mode, and let me enable it with a simple menu item (or better yet, a button or toggle) whenever I get in the car.

Honestly, this doesn't seem hard, and I'm not sure why phone manufacturers and/or software providers haven't thought of it sooner. In app-rich environments like Android or the iPhone OS, smartphone makers may be assuming developers will take care of this type of feature-add for them. But it would go a long way toward building good PR and addressing a serious and growing social problem if an actual phone or phone OS vendor stepped up to the plate and made driving mode a built-in feature. Apple? Google? Symbian? HP-Palm? Make it happen!