The iPhone doesn't let apps run "in the background" -that is, while the user does other things. That means the safe-driving apps are usually limited to BlackBerrys or those running Google Inc.'s Android software.
One startup company has devised a novel way of encouraging safe driving, even on iPhones. Its idea is to use an economic incentive: it records users' behavior and pays them when they leave the phone alone until the end of the trip.
The app appears to have become a victim of its own success. SafeCellApp started out in 2010 by paying $1 per 100 miles, with a maximum payout of $250 per person per year. But last year, it changed that to $1 per 1000 miles, paying at most $20 per year. The app costs $12, plus a subscription fee of $12 per year. Most reviewers in Apple's App Store, however, rate it a one-star rating out of five.
The National Transportation Safety Board hasn't weighed in on any apps. Its recommendation is a human solution: Just don't use your phone at all while driving, even if you're using a hands-free device.
The Transportation Department is also betting on human, rather than technological solutions. It's awarding $2.4 million to Delaware and California for pilot projects to combine more police enforcement with publicity campaigns against distracted driving. Similar pilot projects in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., are successfully reducing distracted driving, Transportation Secretary LaHood said last week.
Technology may yet bail us out of the problem of distracted driving - not by making us less distracted, but by taking care of the driving.
This summer, the government is launching a yearlong test involving nearly 3,000 specially-equipped cars, trucks and buses in Ann Arbor, Mich. These vehicles sense each other wirelessly, and warn drivers about impending collisions, often before the other vehicle is in sight.
In an even more extreme example, cars may someday soon drive themselves. As part of a pilot project, Google Inc. has equipped cars with sophisticated 360-degree sensors and computers that never get distracted or tired. Its cars have logged more than 140,000 miles on public streets with only occasional human intervention through the brake or wheel. Driverless cars are now legal in Nevada, though the law still requires a person in the driver's seat.
"If you are really going to look to the future, you are going to have to ask yourself: Is Google right? Should we have driverless cars?" said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Automotive Safety, a consumer group. "The computer driven car with a GPS system is going to make less mistakes than a human being. The question is, is society ready for it?"