Over the past few months, we've seen a number of smartphone apps designed to curb distracted driving -- namely, SafeCell, PhoneGuard, and Mashable's mobile app of the year, DriveSafe.ly. Now a nationwide carrier has joined the fray: T-Mobile, with its DriveSmart service.
Of the various apps designed to eliminate driving distractions, DriveSmart is probably closest to PhoneGuard. It's an option on family subscription plans (much like PhoneGuard, which is designed for families and corporate fleets). Also, the service kicks in automatically when it detects that a phone is moving at a certain speed (probably about 10 mph). And although the service can be overridden in case of emergency, it provides an alert to parents letting them know that someone on the plan has done so.
There are, however, a couple of noticeable differences. Unlike some apps, which immediately cut off drivers from the rest of the world by sending calls to voicemail, if DriveSmart finds a Bluetooth handsfree device in range, it'll route calls there instead. That gives users the option of taking calls if they choose -- though as we've seen, handsfree calling isn't really any safer than holding a phone to your ear. Incoming text messages are saved, and an autoresponse is bounced to the sender. (Sadly, that's not quite as nifty as DriveSafe.ly, which can read text messages aloud.)
If properly promoted, DriveSmart stands to do well in the marketplace. The service runs $4.99 per month for all lines on a plan -- a fairly small price to pay for the possibility of safer driving -- and the service seems enough to use. We also like the fact that DriveSmart comes from a carrier, not an app developer, which puts it front and center of thousands of subscribers all at once. That bodes very well for widespread adoption. Frankly, we're surprised that other carriers haven't already rolled out similar services.
That said, there are still many, many kinks to work out with these sorts of services and apps -- namely, how to tell whether the phone's owner is a driver or merely a passenger, and how easy/complicated to make overriding the service. Some of those concerns could be countered by the automakers themselves, in ways that we mentioned yesterday -- for example, by creating a "dumb box" dashboard that not only serves as a touchscreen for navigation and entertainment, but also quickly connects with the driver's phone, creating an instant buffer between her and incoming calls, texts, and emails. Given how important the issue is to the feds, the public, and Oprah, we expect to see major developments in this technology very soon.