- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2008

New technology promises to make it safer to send and receive text messages while driving as companies respond to the latest safety threat created by an increasingly connected world.

“We’re so highly mobile, it’s a natural inclination that we’re bored, we want to get some stuff done on the way,” said Igor Jablokov, chief executive officer of Yap Inc., whose software converts spoken words into text messages. “Some people are saying, ‘Why don’t you just call someone instead of texting him?’ Texting is the way people are interacting nowadays.”

One-fifth of all drivers send or receive text messages, according to a Nationwide Insurance study conducted in 2006. But the number is much higher among younger drivers: 66 percent of those ages 18 to 24 confessed that they text while driving, a Zogby poll found last summer.

Yap reads incoming messages out loud and enables users to send messages without typing. Mr. Jablokov said the Charlotte, N.C., startup hasn’t worked out details on pricing or distribution but hopes to make the application available for “minimal to nothing” by midyear. Cell-phone users would download the application over the air, which would

allow the company to enhance the program continuously, he said.

Some car companies now offer factory-installed devices that include text-to-speech features. The Ford Sync, a multimedia system available as a $395 add-on to a dozen 2008 Ford, Mercury and Lincoln models, integrates a user’s phone via Bluetooth wireless technology. In addition to hands-free calling, the Microsoft-powered system is able to read text messages aloud over car speakers.

When it comes to replying, however, users can choose from only several preset general responses and must press buttons to choose and send a message.

The Mercedes-Benz C-Class, likewise, offers an in-car communications system that supports text-to-speech technology. Command APS, like Sync, is based on technology from Nuance Communications, which also embeds hands-free texting technology in cell phones.

“When people have to take their eyes off the road and start fiddling with the radio or fiddling with the phone or any other device, their eyes can’t continue to focus at the relative detail and at the rate of visual change of the field,” said Mike Wehrs, vice president of industry affairs and evangelism at Nuance.

Some are skeptical about the safety and effectiveness of hands-free texting features.

“I don’t see a whole lot of benefit of talking and then getting a text out of that,” said Kent German, an editor at technology Web site CNET.com. “If you’re doing that because you can’t handle the phone, then you may as just well make a [hands-free] call.”

Only Washington state and New Jersey have explicit bans on texting while driving, but five states and the District have laws prohibiting cell-phone use without hands-free devices by drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Massachusetts and New Hampshire are considering bans on texting or cell-phone use while driving. Earlier this month, a Virginia bill that would outlaw texting while driving was referred to a committee for further study.

“If you’re typing while driving, or if you’re distracted while driving by a cell phone, you’re subject to make an error, and in many cases it can prove to be fatal,” said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Mr. Townsend cited a highly publicized case in New York last year when five teenagers were killed in a car accident reportedly caused by texting.

Last month, police said a 13-year-old boy in Massachusetts was killed when a man veered off the road as he typed a text message.

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