Disabling the able little cell phone

It may seem ironic that the federal government is seeking to block cell phone usage by drivers just as the number of applications () for mobile devices is absolutely exploding, but there it is. Last December, U.S. Dept. of Transportation (DOT) secretary Ray LaHood proposed banning interstate bus and truck drivers from using handheld cell phones while operating a vehicle

It may seem ironic that the federal government is seeking to block cell phone usage by drivers just as the number of applications (“apps”) for mobile devices is absolutely exploding, but there it is. Last December, U.S. Dept. of Transportation (DOT) secretary Ray LaHood proposed banning interstate bus and truck drivers from using handheld cell phones while operating a vehicle.

The proposed rule would specifically ban drivers from “reaching for, holding or dialing a cell phone” while driving. Vehicle operators who violate the rule could be charged $2,750 and risk losing their commercial driver's license for multiple offenses. Motor carriers that allow their drivers to use handheld cell phones while driving would face a maximum penalty of $11,000.

The concern for limiting talking and texting is not groundless by any means, though. Perhaps the only thing growing faster than apps for mobile communication devices is the number of accidents caused by drivers using them. According to DOT, distracted driving killed nearly 6,000 people last year and injured about half a million more.

Enter technology to the rescue. Thanks to some enterprising new solution providers, it may be possible to take advantage of the benefits of mobile communication devices without risking your fleet's safety rating, or even your company itself in the process.

Illume Software, for example, offers an intelligent GPS-enabled mobile application dubbed iZUP (think “eyes up”) that is designed to eliminate cell phone-related distractions. Load the iZUP application onto a handset and it automatically launches when it detects the phone is in a vehicle traveling over 5 mph. While the vehicle is moving, iZUP sends incoming calls to voice mail and holds text messages until the vehicle stops. It also prevents outgoing communication while in motion, yet is designed to allow emergency 911 calls and calls to other authorized numbers.

“Liability is the number-one reason why fleets are investing in solutions like iZUP,” says Daniel Ross, CEO of Illume Software. “Tens of billions of dollars are lost each year due to cell phone usage while driving, and the number of lawsuits appears to be growing as do the dollar amounts involved. Fleet owners are also the ones who usually lose [in court].

“Existing and proposed rules around the problem of distracted driving are also a motivating factor for fleets as is a very real concern for the safety of their employees and others on the highway and a desire to protect company assets,” Ross adds.

According to Ross, Illume is already working on additional functions for the future, including the ability for fleets to see reports on how many calls were made and when they were made.

The company is also actively working with insurance providers and expects to see them eventually offer premium discounts to fleets that deploy iZUP. “We currently have contracts with four insurance companies to deploy our system in their own fleets and to offer it for sale to their insurance clients,” he says.

Virginia-based ZoomSafer also offers software designed to prevent employee use of mobile phones while driving. Called FleetSafer Mobile, the software works on BlackBerry and Windows mobile phones and an Android version is coming soon. It is designed to automatically lock the phone while driving to prevent calls, texts and emails. FleetSafer will also send auto-reply messages to incoming texts and emails. According to the company, it can be triggered by telematics, Bluetooth technology, or GPS and is customizable to a company's mobile phone usage policies.

A companion cloud-based software service solution, FleetSafer Vision is intended to integrate vehicular telematics data such as trip information, location and speed, with mobile device usage data and other information (email logs, weather and traffic) to enable fleet operators to measure and remediate risky behavior and reinforce good behavior.

Although the company is relatively new, it has already formed a number of partnerships, most recently with Xata Turnpike. Among its other partners are Networkfleet, Sprint Nextel, inthinc and GPS Insight.

“Our new partnership with ZoomSafer will enable Xata Turnpike customers to prohibit any use of a mobile device,” says Christian Schenk, vice president-product marketing, for Xata. “It handles distracted driving in such an efficient way in a centralized location.

“In addition to locking the phone down, it offers fleets the ability to tell if a cell phone was used while the vehicle was in motion, even if there was no accident related to that usage,” he notes.

There are also other companies offering technologies to control cell phone usage. Cellcontrol, for instance, makes use of an always-on cabin module installed in the vehicle communications port to control use of mobile device functions on multiple units available to the driver and passengers. Special features include the ability to allow calls when a Bluetooth headset is detected.

The availability of various technologies to restrict and track in-vehicle use of mobile devices is likely to continue to expand right along with the growth in the functionality and use of mobile devices themselves. Think about how the number of active and passive onboard safety systems has grown in an effort to make the business of hauling freight by truck safer and more efficient. Cell phone usage control and tracking systems are the data corollary — tools to make the task of sharing information safer for those moving goods and people down the highway.

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