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How to Reduce the Risks of Phone Use While Driving

Study after study has shown that using a phone while driving can be dangerous. But although some safety advocates say you shouldn’t use a phone at all when you’re behind the wheel, that’s not realistic, considering that smartphones—with their integrated digital assistants—have become the go-to device for many people to get directions, play audio, contact others, and obtain information.

A phone can also be your most important aid in an emergency. And if your car is operating as a ride-share vehicle, using the services’ apps is an integral part of doing business. The key is to minimize unnecessary phone usage and to use your phone as safely as possible when you must. We have some advice.

How bad is using a phone while driving?

In a 2018 study, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that more drivers today are “manipulating” their phones while driving—performing such handheld activities as dialing, texting, accessing websites, entering destinations, and choosing music. The IIHS said this increased the risk of a fatal crash by an estimated 66 percent and contributed to more than 800 crash fatalities on US roads in 2017, the latest year for which data was available. Those fatality figures include both distracted drivers and any innocent drivers involved in the crashes. The number of injury-related nonfatal crashes is likely much higher.

“Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds,” the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says. “At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.” Similarly, a 2018 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (PDF) found that any “visual-manual cell phone interaction” nearly doubles the odds of a crash, triples the odds of driving off the road, and increases the odds of rear-ending another vehicle by more than seven times. Interestingly, it also found that simply having a cell phone conversation didn’t result in any significantly higher risk than when driving normally.

Organizations such as the National Safety Council and the National Transportation Safety Board recommend that people not use their phones at all while behind the wheel. On the other hand, Ian Reagan, an IIHS senior research scientist, notes in a 2015 report about in-car voice-control systems (PDF) that the right tools can help. “In an ideal world, drivers wouldn’t do anything but drive while the vehicle is moving. But people are increasingly plugged in at all times,” he says in the report. While using a phone can be inherently distracting on some level, he notes that “it’s possible to reduce some types of distraction through system design.”

A study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that any “visual-manual cell phone interaction” nearly doubles the odds of a crash, triples the odds of driving off the road, and increases the odds of rear-ending another vehicle by more than seven times.

How you can reduce the risks

A good smartphone mount can securely hold a phone where it’s easy to see and interact with, so it’s more like using an in-dash display or a car GPS device. Photo: Rik Paul

Mount the phone near eye level

For navigation and other essential tasks while driving, a great step any driver can take is to add a smartphone mount in their vehicle. Our pick offers the best combination of safety, convenience, and stability for your phone. We also recommend a wireless-charging mount that’s easy to use, holds phones securely, and provides some of the quickest charging speeds we’ve seen. While testing dozens of smartphone mounts over the past few years, we’ve found they can reduce the risk of using a phone while driving in several ways:

  • A good mount holds the phone near a driver’s normal line of sight through the windshield, which eliminates the need to look down and minimizes the time your eyes are off the road.

  • By eliminating the need to hold the phone, you can keep both hands on the wheel, so you’ll have optimal control if you need to quickly swerve to avoid an obstacle.

  • Having your phone mounted nearby and closer to your face than, say, if it were sitting in a cup holder or a console bin encourages the use of voice commands to dial numbers, enter destinations, choose music, and send short messages. If your car doesn’t have built-in Bluetooth, you can also use a Bluetooth kit to route the phone’s audio through your car’s audio system. This makes it easier to hear directions, music, and phone calls, which could lessen the need to reach for the phone to adjust the volume.

  • If you do have to touch the phone, placing it in a convenient, nearby spot at the dash level makes it easier to reach and more like adjusting a car stereo, which, according to a 2013 report by the NHTSA (PDF), has “little effect on driving performance ... or crash risk.”

Use a phone-friendly in-dash system

Using a system that has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto can make phone use less dangerous and improve your overall driving experience. These features mirror the phone functions that you’re already used to, and they place them on a car’s large infotainment display. Instead of having to work with a small phone screen, using these features simplifies the interface with larger buttons, which are easier to see and interact with. This basically makes using your phone similar to operating a car’s audio or built-in navigation system.

Apple CarPlay (shown above) and Android Auto, available in many new cars and add-on stereos, provide a more driver-friendly interface for navigating, streaming audio, and conducting hands-free calls through your phone. This makes using them more like operating a stereo.

These features are popular in new cars, and they are now commonly available in many add-on car-audio systems, so you can probably find one that fits your vehicle, even if it’s an older or less expensive model. In our tests, we found that our top pick made connecting and using a phone easier than other models did. That’s essential to minimizing distraction.

Try a “do not disturb while driving” mode

Minimizing the number of incoming messages and calls can also reduce the distraction of having a phone in the car. Many phones let you do this through a “do not disturb while driving” feature. You can set the one for iPhones (iOS 11 and later) to automatically activate when the phone senses motion or connects to a car via Bluetooth. Depending on your settings, it can limit incoming messages and calls to ones you want to come through, and if a message is urgent, you can have Siri read it aloud. You can also set up an automatic reply with a custom message that goes to people trying to message you. While the phone’s screen normally stays dark in this mode, the app still lets you use Maps to navigate. An editor on Wirecutter’s tech team says this feature works very well.

Google built a similar feature into its Android OS, but it’s available only in its Pixel 2 and 3 phones. For other Android phones, you can use third-party apps, such as Driving Detective and Drivemode, to get similar functionality, although we haven’t tried them.

An alternative for Android phone owners is the Android Auto app, which limits your phone’s usage mainly to navigating, listening to audio, conducting hands-free calls, and sending and receiving messages by voice. As with the “do not disturb while driving” apps, you can set this one up to turn on automatically when it detects you’re in a car. In our experience, the Android Auto app works well, but we recommend using it with a good smartphone mount.

Focus on the road

We agree with safety advocates who say that phone use should be kept to a minimum. Good tools can help you stay safe, but the most important aid in reducing your risk is your own common sense. Make the road your number one priority. Even if you’re using your phone only through voice commands or by pressing the occasional button or two, don’t try to do this when there are other things to focus on. If you’re approaching an intersection, passing a car, merging, or maneuvering through a crowded street, wait a minute. And if you need to do something that you can’t accomplish with a voice command or a quick button press—looking up an address, setting up a playlist or an audiobook, sending an extended message—do it before you begin driving or after you find a safe place to pull off the road. We think a smartphone can be a valuable aid in the car—like stereos and navigation systems can be—so making it easy to access and being careful about how you use it can prevent it from becoming a deadly distraction.

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