Friday, October 03, 2008

California Bans Texting and Driving

We all know in our "gut" that texting on our cell phones while driving or conducting any other task that requires high concentration and motor skills is seriously distracting. A good example of this is the recent fatal train accident in southern California. The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) has determined that the engineer of the train that caused the accident was sending text messages from his cell phone during the last few minutes before the accident and the belief is that this may have contributed to the accident.

Last fall at Nuance Communication's CONVERSATIONS Conference, one of the keynote sessions involved a demonstration of just how dangerous and distracting "texting" was. You can see a video of this demonstration on YouTube at Amazing Race: Distracted Driving.

This past week California's Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger said "Hasta la vista" to texting while driving and terminated a loophole in California's vehicle code that banned drivers from talking on cell phones while driving without a hands-free device but let them communicate via text messages. The Associated Press reported that the governor signed the law which will take effect on January 1, 2009. My home state of Washington had already banned text messaging while driving.

Given the usefulness of these devices it's difficult to image that we'll break our addiction to the BlackBerry or iPhone -- they don't call it a "CrackBerry" without a reason. That said, speech recognition technology offers a straight forward way to improve safety in the way we use these devices without taking away their convenience. Several services and embedded applications have already reached the market which address this problem. One example that I've blogged about before is Jott Networks. Jott allows you to dial their service and then send notes to yourself and others entirely using voice recognition based navigation and dictation. Others companies with similar offerings include SpinVox and SimulSays. When combined with voice based dialing and hands free access, these services remove most of the physical contact required to interact with mobile devices, eliminating much of the distraction that occurs when you interact via the keyboard.

This lesson can be carried over to the customer service world. Many IVR based self service applications in use today require serious use of the DTMF keypad for entry of things like account numbers, choices from lists, ticker symbols, etc. and pose the same risk to drivers as other kinds of text messaging. Given the prevalence in the use of cell phones these days, I think a strong case can be made for speech enabling applications which have complex DTMF (touch tone) entry requirements simply as a safety step for callers and to avoid potential legal issues which may become a problem as more and more states impose similar bans on non-hands-free use of cell phones.

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