Monday, November 2, 2015

Why Phones Need a Driving Mode: Questions and Answers

Last Friday, The Wall Street Journal published "A Simple Solution for Distracted Driving," an essay that I wrote with Daniel Simons. We argued that all smartphones should come equipped with a Driving Mode—an easily activated or default setting that would prevent users from engaging in the most distracting activities while they were driving their cars. In such a short piece, we were only able to sketch the outlines of this idea. Below are some further elaborations, based on comments we saw or received, organized as a set of questions and answers. (If you want to hear me talk about Driving Mode for a few minutes, you can listen to my radio interview this morning on The Financial Exchange.)

My phone already has Driving Mode.
As we noted, some phones already have features like the one we are proposing, and some of them are similar to our version. However, the vast majority of phones do not have the "robust" driving mode that we advocate. By robust we mean a driving mode that: (1) eliminates all sources of significant distraction, including non-emergency communications; (2) permits full use of GPS and navigation; and (3) sends automatic responses to anyone who tries to contact you while you're driving, and holds the incoming messages without showing them to you until you exit driving mode. Here's an interesting blog post along similar lines to our idea, with more implementation details (we weren't aware of this post when we wrote our essay).

Isn't what you propose the same as Apple Car Play?
No. From what we can tell about Car Play, it's an iOS 9 feature that integrates your phone with a screen built into your car. And it permits the user to do a lot more than our driving mode would. Car Play lets you make and take calls, send and receive messages, etc. Sure, it lets you do this hands-free, but those activities are still very cognitively absorbing even if you don't need your hands to do them.

What about AT&T's "DriveMode" app? (Or similar apps.)
Apps that implement something resembling our robust driving mode are great, and people should use them. AT&T's DriveMode app has several nice features, but lacks some of the ones we think are important. What we'd like to see is a universal driving mode that is fully integrated with the operating system and the hardware of the phone, so that it can have full control over all communication, app use, etc. Third-party apps may not have sufficient control to really implement a robust driving mode, or to stay functional when the operating system or hardware change.

I just put my phone in my purse/briefcase or turn it off, so I don't need Driving Mode.
If you can maintain the discipline to do this, good for you! But this prevents you from using your phone for GPS and navigation, features that probably provide more value than they cost in potential distraction. For users who need those features, or who forget or can't force themselves to put their phones far away while driving, a Driving Mode would help. And some of those less disciplined users are going to be behind the wheel of their own cars while you are on the road.

There are already public service campaigns, laws, and other efforts against distracted driving.
Very true. In an earlier draft of our essay, we mentioned some of these. We aren't against them (except when they are based on erroneous assumptions, such as the idea that hands-free technology will solve the problems of limited attention); we just think that it's so tempting to use a phone while driving, and also so dangerous, that industry can do more to help customers exert self-control.

I like my car's head-up display feature. It feels as though I can read the information on the windshield while keeping my eyes on the road and not driving any worse.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of research on attention in general and head-up displays in particular, and it all generally concludes that this feeling is an illusion. Like the feeling we have that we can talk on the phone (or do even more) while driving, or the feeling people have that they can drive just fine when they are drunk, it reflects a mismatch between the signals our brain uses to monitor its own performance levels, and the reality of those performance levels. Often they line up, but when it comes to knowing how well we are paying attention, we can be way off.

Won't a driving mode that activates based on GPS-detected speed stop passengers from using their phones? And what about people using mass transportation?
We were well-aware of these issues, but in a short essay we didn't have space to address them. And we aren't sure ourselves of the optimal solutions. But we are cognitive psychologists, not mobile operating system designers. We are sure that the geniuses at Apple and Google can come up with clever answers, perhaps working with car makers and phone service providers. Meanwhile, here are a couple of our thoughts:

  • The key principle is that a phone should have an intelligent default behavior, without preventing users from doing things outside the default. If a phone enters driving mode automatically over 10mph, perhaps it would require just two taps to exit the mode. Passengers or mass-transit riders could do this quickly and easily when a prompt popped up on their screen, but drivers would be less likely to. Some would, of course, but many wouldn't. Many users stick with default settings and never learn how to change them, or learn how but don't bother. The default is not just an arbitrary factory setting: it is also interpreted as a recommendation or a social norm.
  • Perhaps this feature could be deactivated by a driver before he starts driving, so that driving mode wouldn't start. This simply shifts the burden of action from those who want to be in driving mode to those who don't. Again, there is no God-given standard setting for what features should be available on a phone at what times: making people affirmatively decide to enable distractions seems just as sensible, if not more so, than making them affirmatively decide to disable them.
  • Even if there is no automatic activation for Driving Mode, its mere existence, combined with the ease of initiating it, should help. Even if only 10% of drivers would turn it on, that would be a win.

Driving Mode is a further step in the infantilization of people by governments and elites. Adults should be aware of what they are and aren't capable of doing, and should be free to choose how to use their phones.
Speaking for myself only, I sympathize greatly with this point of view.  I wish people were more aware of their mental capabilities, and I try to educate people about that. I worry quite a bit about the impulse to regulate or forbid behavior that people don't like. Regulations are often put in place on speculation but rarely repealed when their costs turn out to outweigh their benefits. But it seems much more infantilizing to regulate, say, what words people can use, or what Halloween costumes they can wear, or what subjects they can research or study, than to regulate how distracted they can make themselves while driving a car at high speeds. We already regulate many aspects of driving for safety reasons: we restrict speeds, require turn signals, encourage seatbelt use, paint lanes on roads, put up stoplights, and so on. Even if you have perfect self-control and don't need a driving mode, you might agree that other people on the road could benefit from being less distracted, and thus you would benefit too.
     One way to look at the situation is this: The invention of the internet and the smartphone have brought countless benefits to everyone. Society is much, much better off with them than without. Compared to the gains we have made in staying connected, having knowledge at our fingertips, and even just being better entertained, the loss from a slightly restrictive driving mode is a very small price to pay. No higher a price, I would think, than what you lose by not being able to drive 70 miles per hour on empty local roads at night, which is a restriction everyone accepts as sensible. While I admire the behavioral technology of the "nudge," which has the power to make people better off without reducing their real options, I also worry that it can be used in inappropriate ways—to push people toward choices that are not in their own true best interests. This, however, is not one of those cases. Eliminating distractions while driving should be in everyone's interests. And finally, note that we are not proposing any new laws or regulations; indeed, regulating the features of smartphones sounds (to me) like a futile exercise. We are only urging the phone industry to think about how to make their products safer and better than they already are.