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Your smartphone is probably still making you a terrible driver, despite recent advances

Despite new voice commands and features to help keep our hands on the wheel, distracted driving remains the No. 1 cause of car accidents in the US.

Google Map

Google Maps.

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One of the first rules that a person is taught when they start driving is to focus all their attention on the road and their surroundings. Now that 77 percent of people in the US have smartphones, "no distractions" has often come to mean "no smartphones."

But if you turn off or put your smartphone away while you are driving, you become keenly aware of what you'll be missing. You won't have maps and navigation, which can help you arrive safely at your destination. It also won't be possible to switch between your favorite songs and podcasts, which can help keep you calm behind the wheel.

Since these devices are now so central to how we run our daily lives, most people no longer try to keep them out of reach during a drive. Instead, apps and devices seem to assume that we'll be interacting with our smartphone in the car, and so smartphone companies and automakers have tried to make it safer.

Here's how your smartphone can help make you safer, and less safe while driving.

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Positive things about smartphones in cars

Developments over the last few years have been helpful and increased our safety on the road. At the most basic level, having a phone in the car to be able to call for help in the event of an emergency was one of the primary reasons many people bought their first cellphone. Smartphones have come a long way since then.

Apple and Google have allowed for real-time location sharing. Now you can share your location with a friend or family member instead of trying to send an "almost there" text. With Google Maps, when you share your location, it also shares the battery life of your device.     

If you are in an accident, some smartphone apps can call for help. Noonlight (download for iOS or Android) uses automatic crash detection and response technology in its algorithms. The app can detect changes in a user's location, motion and force. If there is a sudden change, Noonlight can call 911.

Hands-free communication has also improved significantly. Many cars can now connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth and include steering wheel controls for accepting and hanging up calls, increasing and decreasing the volume of your music or podcast and more. Larger new displays in some vehicles can show incoming phone calls and text messages, and even read them to you.

Voice commands can also make smartphones in cars safer. For example, if your vehicle is compatible with Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, with the help of the voice assistant, you can dictate and send a text message, email or place a call without taking your hands off the steering wheel.

At CES 2019, Google tweaked its Assistant function to allow users to access the feature without unlocking their Android device, which is especially helpful in the car.

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Drawbacks of smartphones in cars

Even with all of the safety measures taken so far, distracted driving is still the leading cause of car accidents in the U.S.

"It takes about five seconds, on average, to read or send a text," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported. "Not a lot of time. But, in that span of time, with your eyes on your phone and not on the road, a vehicle traveling 55 miles per hour can travel the length of a football field."

Though the NHTSA recommends shutting your phone off or putting it out of reach before you drive, the continued heavy integration of smartphones into vehicles suggests few people actually do this.

In fact, there aren't even consistent laws regulating smartphone use behind the wheel from state to state. No state has a total cell phone ban when you're driving. Only 16 states in the US ban handheld cell phone use while driving, 38 states have a total cell phone ban on teens and inexperienced drivers. Text messaging behind the wheel, however, has been banned in 47 states.

Instead of remaining firm on addressing distracted driving, it seems we've thrown in the towel and have resigned ourselves to making smartphones safer to use while driving.

Today we have apps that are easier to navigate with imprecise gestures so you don't have to look away from the road.

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Developers have also started cashing in on apps that aim to reduce distraction by making a game out of concentration. Chevrolet launched the Call Me Out app for Android last September which mixes encouragement from loved ones with a high score for not touching your device.

Additionally, the dashboards in vehicles are becoming more high-tech, so it's almost like you're still fiddling with your smartphone. Last September General Motors reported working on a vehicle that had the ability to order takeout, pay for gas and make hotel reservations through the car's touchscreen display.

While there have always been distractions when drivers are behind the wheel, smartphones changed everything. As smartphone ownership became more common, so did instances of distracted driving, according to Motus, a mobile workforce management company. Smartphone ownership and car wrecks involving property damage, fatalities or injuries spiked in 2014 and continue to rise. 

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