The dangers of text-messaging and e-mailing while driving have been documented in several studies and underscored by numerous crashes and fatalities.
A New Jersey entrepreneur says he has a solution -- a free software application that reads incoming text messages and e-mails aloud and automatically sends a reply.
"We think this can really help people keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel," said Heath Ahrens, who formally launched his application called DriveSafe.ly yesterday.
Users can download the application at www.DriveSafe.ly. for free (or a premium version that costs $13.95).
When a text message or e-mail arrives, the application reads it aloud and can be programmed to send an automatic reply like "I'm driving now but I'll get back to you later."
The free version reads messages up to 25 words in a female voice; the premium one will read up to 500 words in a male or female voice, depending on the user's preference.
DriveSafe.ly is available for Blackberry and Android phones, and beta test versions are available for Windows Mobile and the iPhone, Mr. Ahrens said. He hopes to make the technology available for lower-end phones "as soon as possible."
"The problem of texting while driving is already huge and steadily growing," he said. "With the advent of mobile e-mail and text messaging, people are constantly reading and typing messages out on their mobile device, even while behind the wheel. Unfortunately, people's lives are put at risk by distracted driving every time we text or e-mail while operating a vehicle."
He cited a recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that concluded that drivers who text are 23 times more likely to be in a crash.
The innovation comes as a national safety group prepares to push for a ban on cell phone use by commercial drivers and on the eve of a national summit on distracted driving.
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety will hold a news conference in Washington today calling for a nationwide ban on cell phone use by those driving trucks, buses and large passenger vans. The group will petition the U.S. Department of Transportation to enact such a ban.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will convene the summit in Washington next Wednesday and Thursday, at which senior transportation officials, elected officials, safety advocates, law enforcement representatives and academics will discuss ideas about how to combat distracted driving.
In July, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., proposed legislation to ban train conductors and bus drivers from texting while on the job.
He cited a September 2008 train crash that killed 25 people in Los Angeles, blamed on an engineer who was text-messaging and ran a red signal.
The National Transportation Safety Board has called for a ban on cell phone use by commercial operators who are carrying passengers and this summer banned its own employees from texting or talking on cell phones while driving.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 18 states and the District of Columbia currently ban text-messaging by drivers. Pennsylvania is not among them.
Six states and the District of Columbia prohibit drivers from talking on hand-held cell phones. Pennsylvania does not.
Mr. Ahrens said he believes use of DriveSafe.ly, which is completely hands-free, is permissible in states with texting bans.
Jon Schmitz can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1868.