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Technology Can Detect Driver Phone Use

Mon, 2012-05-14 12:24 -- cnicolini

Acoustics can pinpoint whether a driver, or a passenger, is working with a smartphone inside a car in efforts to reduce distracted driving.
Originally published: 
Apr 13 2012 - 12:30pm
By: 
Karin Heineman, Executive Producer

(Inside Science TV) –Every day in the U.S., almost fifteen people die in car accidents involving distracted drivers using a cellphone.

Despite laws banning cellphone use while driving, more than one-third of drivers admit to using their phones behind the wheel.

Now, computer scientists have a new technology with the potential to block cellphone functions for driver while keeping the passengers cellphone capabilities intact.

The system works using existing Bluetooth technology already installed in the vehicle.  It plays a high frequency sound out of the car speakers, and then calculates how long it takes the sound to reach the phone. The application allows the phone to judge its distance from the speakers and detects if it's on the driver's side. 

“It uses acoustic signals played from your phone out through your car speakers to determine which side of the vehicle the phone is on," said Richard Martin, a computer scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

The technology blocks only drivers' phones, so passengers can text, talk and tweet away. The technology offers the driver the option to not block incoming calls from important numbers, like from kids or a spouse.

"The uniqueness of this technology is that we can classify whether the phone is being used by the driver or by the passenger," said Yingying Chen, a computer scientist at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Figure illustrates of the logical flow in the system

Credit: Jie Yang, Yingying Chen, Marco Grutester, Richard P. Martin

A future version of the app will limit or change the functioning of the phone for the driver.

“It can route calls automatically to voicemail, it can delay text messages until you’re stopped," said Marco Gruteser, a computer scientist at Rutgers.

The technology still allows drivers to make 911 calls but it helps take away the temptation to text or talk.

“It’s going to help them have a better driving behavior and also to help them reduce the distractions caused by the cellphones," said Chen.

Science helping stop distractions before they start.

Answering a text takes away your attention for about five seconds. It doesn’t seem like much time, but in a car that is enough time to travel the length of a football field.


Karin Heineman is the executive producer of Inside Science TV. She has produced over 600 video news segments on science, technology, engineering and math in the past 13 years for Inside Science TV and its predecessor, Discoveries and Breakthroughs Inside Science.

Get Inside the Science:

Stevens Researcher Detects Driver Cell Phone Use to Decrease Accidents

Paper: Detecting Driver Phone Use Leveraging Car Speakers

Yingying Chen, Stevens Institute of Technology

U.S. Government Information Resource on Distracted Driving

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