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07 May 2017

Some Families Blame Phone Makers for Distracted Driving Deaths

Some families blame phone makers for distracted driving deaths
by Wendy Leesfchronicle.com, 17 April 2017

(Photo)  Peggy Riggs looks at photographs of her three sons in her home in Oakdale, Minn., including that of her youngest son, David (left), who was killed when his scooter was struck by a car driven by a teenager who was texting.
Photo: Caroline Yang, Caroline Yang / Special To The Chronicle

Peggy Riggs often warned her children, including 20-year-old son David, about the dangers of texting and driving. In turn, David encouraged his friends never to engage in the practice.

But that message did not get through to the driver who killed David Riggs until it was too late. In 2013, David was heading home on his scooter in Minnesota when a teenager in a Honda Civic slammed into him. The teen was distracted by texting on his iPhone, according to a lawsuit filed by Craig Riggs, David’s father.

Craig Riggs holds Apple partly responsible for the tragedy. He sued the company this month, joining several others who have accused the Cupertino company in court of not installing technology that could prevent crashes caused by distracted drivers who lack the self-control to stop toying with their phones when they’re behind the wheel.

“Don’t put another family through this tragedy,” Riggs said in an interview. “We (wake) up every day missing our son. He’s got two brothers and has a niece now he is never going to see.”

The teenage driver who hit David Riggs was convicted of a misdemeanor. He did not respond to a request through his counselor for comment.

Analysts say Apple and other smartphone manufacturers could add technology that forcibly shuts off text messaging and other distracting features for drivers.

“There is no technical reason for why these things aren’t available at this point,” said Douglas Schmidt, a computer science professor at Vanderbilt University.

The manufacturers of the world’s top smartphone operating systems — Google and Apple — have features that prevent texting while driving, but it’s all optional. Besides airplane mode, which lets phone users disconnect from the cellular network, those with iPhones can dictate messages with the voice assistant Siri. Google has an app called Android Auto that lets users access maps and music and send messages with their voices. Experts say, however, that switching to voice commands does not solve the basic problem of distraction.

Both Apple and Google also have features that work with car displays, depending on the type of vehicle.

Distracted driving accounted for 10 percent of deaths caused by vehicle crashes in 2015, killing more than 3,000 people, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That year, 391,000 people were injured through incidents involving distracted drivers. About eight percent of the people injured were in incidents that involved distraction by a cell phone, according to the administration.

Apple argues that it shouldn’t be held accountable for such crashes because they were caused by the distracted drivers misusing the technology, not a defect in the iPhone.

“Drivers also choose to apply makeup, read paper maps, consume food, and engage in a wide variety of distractions while driving, but these actions do not make the product manufacturers or service providers liable,” Apple said in court documents of a case involving a Texas family that lost a daughter in a car crash because of a distracted driver who was using FaceTime on his iPhone while driving.

On Tuesday, a judge in San Jose tentatively ruled in Apple’s favor, to dismiss the suit. (A tentative ruling is not final but offers a strong indication of the judge’s intention.)

“The Court concludes there is not a sufficiently ‘close’ connection between Apple’s conduct and Plaintiffs’ injuries to warrant the imposition of a legal duty,” wrote Judge Theodore Zayner of the Superior Court of California.

Some families, including Craig Riggs’, note that Apple has received a patent for developing technology that would lock iPhone functions such as texting when the phone’s owner is driving. Apple would be able to sense the location of the phone within the car based on motion and analyzing the scenery through photo or video data. Apple acknowledged in its patent document the concerns about texting and driving, including the challenge for law enforcement of catching distracted drivers if they are surreptitiously using a phone on their lap.

“Texting while driving has become so widespread it is doubtful that law enforcement will have any significant effect on stopping the practice,” Apple wrote in its patent.

Apple did not respond to questions about why it has not installed the technology.

Companies patent technologies for a variety of reasons, and such filings don’t always indicate new products they plan on rolling out.

Other technologies can prevent texting while driving, but it is up the consumer to choose to use them. Some wireless carriers offer apps that reduce distractions from smartphones when driving. For example, AT&T’s DriveMode app — downloaded more than 13 million times since it launched in 2011 — silences incoming phone calls. No major smartphone manufacturer has launched technology that forces users not to text while driving. The companies may fear putting off customers if such safety features were forced upon them, analysts said.

“People are sometimes reluctant to pay for or use safety-related stuff, even though we all think it’s a good idea in the abstract,” Schmidt said. “It’s more about user acceptance and trying to not (upset) your customers. That is probably the bigger factor than if it is something technically feasible, which it clearly is.”

It is also unclear whether consumers want to be prevented from texting while driving. Scosche Industries of Oxnard (Ventura County) once sold a product called Cellcontrol that could turn off texting and app use while a driver is on the road. But Scosche stopped selling the product “a number of years back” because there wasn’t enough demand, according to Chris Cowles, the company’s director of marketing.

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