The Stack Archive

UK follows American lead on ‘driver mode’ for smartphones

Mon 19 Dec 2016

According to The Guardian, the UK is set to follow the United States in seeking legislation requiring phone manufacturers to take an active stance on limiting drivers ability to use smartphones whilst they are actually driving.

The paper reveals that an ‘informal meeting’ will take place in Whitehall in the new year wherein ministers and other officials will mandate ‘drive safe’ modes into the software of mobile phones.

The smartphone setting would be similar to ‘Airplane Mode’, which Apple provides in iOS (and Android accommodates in similar functionality) to allow continued usage of phones during take-off and landing without sending signals which could interfere with aircraft operation.

It’s a proposition that the U.S. Department of Transportation has already called for this year, though there are no reported plans to legislate the functionality into law in the U.S.

Under the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) scheme, only satnav and music apps would function whilst in ‘drive mode’ – effectively replicating options available in most cars, and otherwise turning the phone off.

The Guardian mentions two possible functionality locks in Drive Mode – the limiting of phone calls to the emergency services only, and the automatic blocking of the phone if the car reaches a certain velocity. However it is not clear from the article that these are the proposals being taken to Whitehall.

It will be interesting to see how smartphone manufacturers respond to these directives from the UK and U.S. if they do not come at the same time, or with exactly the same stipulations. Technically it would be possible to create a driver mode which offers or limits accessibility to the phone based on geographic location, to cover differing legislation across countries.

The question is one of enforcement; it could take car industry legislation to really chain up a motorist’s phone by default – perhaps with near-field technologies, or Bluetooth communication via open modules in the car. But how could a phone know its user is not a passenger, either of the vehicle driver, or even public transportation?

Additionally it seems that it would be far easier for Apple to implement restrictions of this nature in its famously walled mobile operating system than with Android smartphones, which have recently come under criticism for the lack of critical updates from some third-party manufacturers.

More likely is that the mode would become a forensic factor in accident investigation, wherein proof that the driver had not engaged Drive Mode would be obtained by local investigation of the phone’s activity logs. If this were the case, it would certainly re-open already fervent government interest in being given free access to users’ heavily encrypted smartphones.

From next year the fixed penalty for mobile phone use whilst driving will double to £200, and the fixed penalty notice double from three to six points on an offender’s license (12 or more points within a three-year period will result in a driving disqualification of between 6 months and two years, depending on the circumstances).


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