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These days we take it for granted that we should be able to have our phones on us at all times regardless of where we are or what’s going on around us. (Just ask the pastor at my brother’s wedding whose phone went off five minutes into his sermon!)

Why this is has become a hot debate amongst scientists.  Evidence is mounting that our phones and the information we access through them are genuinely addictive. Psychologist Susan Wienshenk claims that we get caught up in an addictive dopamine loop when we use our phones to access information, and that this causes us to lose control over our use of them. I’ve got to say this really rings true for me.

The thought of missing out on breaking news or otherwise being denied mobile access to information is literally driving us to distraction. Our phones may be smart, but our use of them is dumb and becoming dumber.

The National Safety Council reckons that 25% of all automobile accidents (1.6 million each year) are caused by drivers distracted by their mobile phone use, and that using a mobile increases the risk of a crash fourfold. I think this is obvious and it is inevitable that more and more states will follow the federal governments lead by banning mobile use for their employees and begin adopting legislation to limit or entirely eliminate the use of mobile phones in vehicles.

In the past year we have seen a veritable “pledge-fest” spring up on the Web as insurance companies, state governments, NGO’s, manufacturers, carriers and Oprah Winfrey all pile onto the bandwagon that will inevitably make the use of phones while driving as socially unacceptable as drunk driving. Personally I find the pledge sites themselves pretty lame and the pledges aren’t worth the virtual paper they're written on, but their very existence points to the fact that the law is out of step with the underlying desires of the people (addicted though we are).

As it stands today 31 states have no partial or full ban at all on texting while driving and those states that do often levy relatively small penalties even in the case of accidents resulting in a death. Iowa is proposing a maximum fine of $1000. Not much for a life.

I grew up in the UK in the ‘70s and ‘80s and our (French made) car literally had more ashtrays than it did seatbelts. No one buckled up and car rides regularly ended with drivers and passengers flying through their windscreens. This doesn’t happen anymore. Adoption of safety belts in cars happened only because legislation was imposed upon car makers and the reluctant driving public. Such has been the impact of this change that now car manufacturers fall all over themselves to market vehicles as safe, and you are as likely to watch a car ad showing a vehicle flying off the road as you are to see the car cruising down it.

The mobile industry needs to take a page out of what is now the auto industry’s playbook. Pledges and legislation are responses to a vacuum that the mobile industry could and should be filling with technology.

The software already exists to prevent mobile phones from being used to send texts or surf the web when a handset is travelling at speed. Manufacturers, carriers and organizations with large field based employee groups should be installing this technology as standard – and for free — on all smartphones.

These solutions obviously aren’t foolproof but look at it this way: New cars these days have seatbelt alarms programmed to annoy us into buckling up. No one objects to this “contextual reminder” - in fact you’d think less of the manufacturer if it wasn’t there. Surely the same principle can apply to phones.

The industry has nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking the lead and helping us (for we are addicts after all) to use our smartphones to do smart things in a smart way. I can’t for the life of me work out why RIM, Apple, Nokia, etc. and all the carriers aren’t feasting off this opportunity already instead of starting yet another “pledge drive” … but then maybe it isn’t just us addicts who aren’t paying attention.

 

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