A few years ago, I remember talking to my wife using the car’s Bluetooth-enabled music system. At a traffic signal, I could see a cop staring at me from the corner of my eye. When our eyes met, he put a finger over his lips, indicating that I shouldn’t be having that phone conversation while driving. I was left amused, thinking that I was following the rules by not holding my phone to the ear. After reaching home and digging on the Internet, I came across articles like these, suggesting that law enforcement has problems with people talking using the car’s Bluetooth systems as well. Since then, I’ve witnessed firsthand a couple of drivers being pulled up for simply wearing a bluetooth headset. About a year ago, my colleague was pulled over by a cop because she was singing a song out aloud with the windows rolled up, and the cop believed she was talking on the phone.
My stance on the whole thing, as you might have guessed by the tone, is pointing towards the absurdity of the situation. Let me be clear that I’m not in favour of anything that causes you to take your hands off the wheel or eyes off the road. But it’s not uncommon today to see drivers flouting safety by texting, using the phone to change music and even wearing earphones while driving. Then you have ride-sharing cab drivers, who fiddle with the phone to use navigation, take phone calls from customers and interact with the phone to accept the next ride or a carpool request, and not necessarily after parking the car first. All these are potentially dangerous things to do. Heck, simply putting the phone to ear while driving renders one hand out of service, which is worse in our country where most cars have a manual transmission.
But to me, a conversation where the sound is emanating from the car’s speakers is no different than having a conversation with a person sitting next to you. In fact, there’s no chance of brief eye contact when on a Bluetooth-enabled phone call, which can very well happen when somebody’s physically present in the car. Some studies on the matter suggest otherwise, while another says talking to a passenger is as dangerous as talking on the phone. The Motor Vehicle Department of Maharashtra’s website currently only lists “talking on mobile phone while driving” as an offence. But to me, a potential ban on using a mobile phone altogether sounds as absurd as a ban on walking with a sharp object, because you might accidentally hurt somebody.
Some technology companies are putting efforts to prevent people from using smartphones while driving, with in-car integrations like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. These platforms, other than offering a simpler user interface than traditional car interfaces, promote the use of voice recognition and computer-generated speech to control your phone without touching it. There are limited apps that you can use, and that’s a good thing because you shouldn’t be using every app that’s on the phone while driving anyway. The basic use cases like making calls, sending messages, listening to music and turn-by-turn navigation can all be controlled by voice, except turn-by-turn navigation in Apple’s CarPlay, which isn’t available in India yet.
If your car doesn’t have one of these new head units, Google has plans to release a version of their Android Auto app for Android phones. This app will mimic the same handsfree user experience that Android-Auto-enabled cars have today, and all you need is an Android 5.0 or above smartphone and a car mount. Moreover, modern smartphones are capable of being controlled by voice for basic tasks by using hotword detections such as saying “Ok Google” or “Hey Siri”, depending on your OS. Google’s voice recognition has gotten to a point where in my personal experience, I rarely have to look at the screen when I’m dictating a message. On the other hand, Apple’s Siri voice assistant isn’t as good at interpreting words of Indian origin. But, it certainly is a lot better than what it used to be, and hopefully Apple will make it usable in the near future.
The bottom line is, the above-mentioned innovations are certainly more distracting when driving than not using your phone at all. But honestly ask yourself, have you never used your phone when driving? Have you never picked up your phone to casually check notifications when stuck in a traffic jam? We are living in a time where the smartphone has become an inseparable, indispensable tool for many. Wouldn’t a person be a relatively safer driver by using the methods stated above, that keeps his hands on the wheel and eyes on the road? In fact, their adoption and further enhancement with time should reduce the temptation to peek at your phone while driving entirely. Because every time your phone buzzes, it is going to be hard to keep thoughts such as “who was that?”, “was it important?” out of mind, and perhaps faltering in picking the phone up and being party to an accident that could’ve been avoided.