Want to Keep Your Teens (or Employees) from Texting Behind the Wheel?

You've probably heard of mobile phone jamming tech -- blocking a cellphone from communicating with a signal tower, but have you heard about texting-blocking technology?

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Access2Communications Inc.

You’ve probably heard of mobile phone jamming tech — blocking a cellphone from communicating with a signal tower. Active blocking is illegal in the U.S., though you’ve probably bumped into passive blocking, whether intentional or no, where, say, a building’s construction materials inhibit or completely deep six your cellphone’s signal (this usually happens to me in hospitals).

But have you heard about texting-blocking?

I hadn’t until this week, after a company called Access2Communications Inc. contacted about TextBuster, a small $179 piece of hardware you place in your vehicle, just under the dash, that thwarts texting. In fact it goes one further and sever’s the phones data connection entirely, shutting off email and any other sort of Internet functionality. The company says there’s no monthly fee for its product, and that you can use as many phones as you like with a single device.

A quick overview of the problem the company’s hoping to mitigate: According to a National Safety Council report, in 2010, 21% of all crashes (1.1 million total) involved people talking on handheld or hands-free cellphones. On top of that, an additional 3% or more (at least 160,000) crashes involved texting. And the rates have gone up since: So far in 2012, the NSC estimates that a crash involving “drivers using cellphones and texting” occurs every 24 seconds, thus an estimated over 1.2 million have occurred as this story’s going live.

Thus TextBuster, though it isn’t a jammer in the traditional sense — it doesn’t actually “jam” a phone within range. Instead, it uses a Bluetooth module to identify a pre-paired device running the TextBuster app, which in turn disables all the data functions, including text messaging, email and Internet access. You can still make or receive calls, of course, or use GPS for mapping purposes.

I suspect an increasing number of people fiddle with GPS apps while driving, which — depending on the app and where the device is situated — poses its own distracted driving risks. When I asked Barta about GPS distraction, he said the company “felt taking away navigation for directions would cause more problems than improper use of the navigation.”

Can’t the user running the TextBuster app just remove it? Nope, says Access2Communications Inc. — the app is password-protected, and if you tamper with it or remove it, it sends an SMS alert to the person monitoring.

“There are two applications that download to the user’s phone, the main TextBuster application and a TextBuster watchdog app,” explains Barta. “What our app does is to notify the account manager (parent, guardian or company fleet manager ) if either application is removed. An instant SMS message is sent to the account manager telling them the application was removed or forced closed.”

(I’m also assuming that if you unplug the TextBuster module itself, which either connects to the vehicle fusebox or plugs into an OBD-II port, that the phone knows and alerts whoever’s monitoring the driver.)

What if the user disables Bluetooth on the phone prior to getting in the vehicle? That’s addressed, too: The phone will “lock” and instruct the user to re-enable Bluetooth (it’ll also let the monitoring server know if Bluetooth has been turned off, or if the user just rebooted the phone).

What about if you’re walking up to the vehicle? Leaning against it? Sitting on the hood? What if you’re just parked somewhere, because you want to text responsibly? Access2Communications Inc. says the app is only active when the vehicle’s running, so you could park, turn the vehicle off, wait “30 to 60 seconds” and have data functionality re-enabled, which sounds great, unless you live in Alaska, North Dakota, Minnesota, or anywhere else it gets glacially cold — or used to, anyway — during the winter.

“We originally had a prototype unit that would work or allow texting when you came to a stop,” said company CEO Brett Barta when I asked for clarification. “This was not a foolproof method because you could travel 5 or 10 miles per hour sometimes before the screen would lock again. We felt the risk should be eliminated altogether and the vehicle must come to a complete stop and be turned off. Also the other factor that came to play was the driver coming to an intersection or stop sign and being distracted by texting.”

The company adds that TextBuster won’t interfere with other hands-free Bluetooth devices in the vicinity and that a single TextBuster device can be programmed to handle multiple phones, say you have multiple drivers. And when I asked about the device’s ability to maintain a connection with you car’s built-in Bluetooth system, Barta confirmed this works fine.

You can also use TextBuster to keep tabs on someone’s driving habits — say your teenage child or an employee using a company vehicle. Violation thresholds can be set to monitor metrics like where the vehicle is, the time it’s being used (if someone’s driving past curfew, for instance) and how fast the vehicle’s traveling. If any of these thresholds are exceeded, you’ll receive an email alert, or you can just view a person’s driving history by logging into an online account that collates the data.

Assuming TextBuster works as claimed, imagine a point at which automobile manufacturers started offering this technology (or technology like it) as an option in vehicles (like side airbags), already integrated with the vehicle’s Bluetooth system. Imagine rental car companies eventually requiring you submit your phone to pair with the tech, to ensure you’re not texting (or doing anything else data-related) while using one of their vehicles. Imagine the government at some point making such technology mandatory at the automotive manufacturing level, like other safety metrics.

I like the texting-blocking angle myself, but I’m leery of the general data-blocking one. What about apps that use differential GPS? (Satellite plus base station data-path corrections, for greater precision.) What about streaming audio apps, like Audible or Spotify? (I use both on extended drives, and I’d hate to tell either a teen or employee she couldn’t, just to block texting). What if the driver wants to hand her smartphone off to someone else in the car to use for some data-related function, say looking up a restaurant or fiddling with the GPS or just checking email or text messages on behalf of the driver? (My wife did this for me for over a year whenever I drove, until she got her own smartphone.)

In principle, TextBuster sounds like a great idea, but to get the job done, its all-or-nothing data approach may be overkill. If I had a teenage driver, I’d probably be more inclined to stick with Parenting 101 — convincing someone to drive safely or defensively is still more an education thing — and hope that someone comes up with a way to selectively block specific protocols (like SMS) instead of blacking out data functions entirely.