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Preventing distracted driving: can technology intervene?

Every parent of a teenager worries about the day their child finally passes the driver's test and utters the terrifying words "can I borrow the car?" Parents come up with different rules to try to keep their kids safe, such as no driving at night or no more than one passenger. One of the most serious new dangers to drivers (not just teens) is texting.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called texting drivers a "deadly epidemic" in a 2009 speech. Texting and other types of distracted driving are now a prominent cause of car accidents, injuring an estimated 448,000 people in 2009 according to government sources. That number is based only off of drivers who have admitted to texting before the accident, some say the real total is much higher. People who have been injured by a distracted driver are eligible for compensation to cover costs associated with their injury.

For parents, texting while driving presents a significant obstacle to safety. Parents want their kids to be safe and carry a cell phone in case of an emergency, but they also want to limit when they use it. One savvy parent who happens to be a physicist may have found the answer.

A researcher at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory says he heard the comments on the dangers of texting and thought of his own family. "I have two daughters, and at the time they were teenagers, and, of course, they lived on their cellphones. I wondered if there was something I could do to address the problem."

He has developed a formula that can predict whether or not a person is driving while sending a text. It is 99 percent accurate. The equation could allow software developers to create an application that shuts off or locks phones when the user seems to be driving. This is a big breakthrough for driver safety, and will hopefully help to decrease the number of car accidents caused by distracted driving.

Source: The Columbian, "Physicist finds way to detect texting behind the wheel," Sue Vorenberg, March 21, 2012.

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