Pokemon Go could put lives in danger. This feature might save them

Commentary: You shouldn't drive while you play Pokemon Go, but inevitably some people will. CNET's Sean Hollister explains how Niantic can make that a much-safer experience.

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Sean Hollister
4 min read
Watch this: What you look like playing Pokemon Go

At this rate, it's only a matter of time.

Someone will be playing Pokemon Go instead of watching the road -- and someone will be seriously injured or even die. Either the people in the car, or some unfortunate soul about their business, will pay the price.

Estimates suggest that Nintendo's smash hit mobile game has been downloaded more often than Tinder, and is fast approaching Twitter in popularity. That's an awful lot of people with heads buried in phones -- and that's after only one week of downloads in just three countries (so far) across the world.

Sooner or later, some of those players will make a potentially deadly discovery: you can play Pokemon Go from your car.

Update: It's already too late. One woman was fatally injured by a driver playing the game.

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Photograph taken at a red light. Don't Pokemon and drive, folks.

Sean Hollister/CNET

I've felt the temptation myself. Driving around town, all those PokeStops whizzing by...it seems so easy to reach for the phone on my dash and give one a quick spin. Wait, is that a rare Pokemon? It's just a tap and a swipe away...

But so is a deadly auto accident, one of the leading causes of death for teens. (It's the leading cause in the United States.)

Washington State is already warning players of the danger. And two confirmed (non-fatal) Pokemon Go-related auto accidents have already taken place.

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To Niantic's credit, this warning appears every single time the game loads.

Screenshot by Sean Hollister/CNET

So here's my humble proposal to you: Let's convince Pokemon Go developer Niantic to offer a reward for drivers who don't touch their phones.

The real genius of Pokemon Go is how it uses technology to bring people together in the real world. People who never would have met or spoken are now out of their homes, walking around town, getting exercise, striking up conversations with strangers and building friendships on the fly.

It's all because Pokémon Go uses our phones' GPS to highlight real-world locations where tiny cute magical creatures and items can be found -- and when you find someone else at those locations playing Pokémon Go, you automatically have something in common. You don't need to find an ice breaker to strike up a conversation.

All Niantic needs to do is take those conversations and that technology one step further: "Let's carpool together."

Pokemon Carpool

One of the reasons it's so tempting to play Pokemon while driving is actually because of all the people around. I know that if I'm not constantly finding, catching and training these pocket monsters, I'll fall behind my friends and rivals in the neighborhood. That could make Pokemon carpools tough -- how am I supposed to concentrate on driving if my passengers are beating me at Pokemon?


what if Pokemon Go had a carpool mode
that rewarded the driver for doing their job? They could get a percentage of the experience points their passengers earn, or perhaps a small, steady stream of Stardust (a valuable resource for powering up Pokemon) during the commute to work or school.

Players wouldn't be able to easily cheat, since Pokemon's GPS tracking will be able to tell whether they're in the same location at the same time.

It's not like we don't have precedents: In California, the DDVIP app lets designated drivers get discounts at restaurants and bars, and Cinemark's Cinemode app encourages people to silence their phones in theaters. Cellular carriers spent millions on a huge "It Can Wait" campaign to warn teens about texting behind the wheel.

But Pokemon carpools wouldn't just be about prevention: they could improve the world as well.

Why not have Pokemon encourage carpools around the world by rewarding the carpool passengers, too -- for helping to reduce roadway congestion and cutting back on global warming and smog by leaving their own cars at home?

If Pokémon can inspire people to go out and exercise, surely it can get them together in an air-conditioned car.

And if you're not keen on the idea of a Pokemon-themed Lyft or Uber and still plan to drive your own car...perhaps Nintendo could add a solo mode to keep you from harm. Perhaps it could save the location of rare Pokemon you've spotted so you can hunt them down later on foot. At least that way, you won't feel like you're losing out by not touching your phone while driving.

Tell Nintendo. Tell Niantic. (They haven't responded to a request for comment yet.) Tell your friends (and maybe your local transit authority). People are already marveling how, in a week where technology brought chilling violence into our homes, a simple smartphone game also brought total strangers together out in the real world.

Nintendo, Niantic: your game could do even more good.