As most of us now know, a widely discussed feature made available as part of Apple’s iOS 11 release is “Do Not Disturb While Driving” (or, DNDWD). Its function is a mighty one: When in that setting (akin to “Airplane Mode”), a phone senses when someone is driving and prevents alerts such as calls and texts from popping up and possibly distracting the driver.
It’s certainly a timely update.
According to the AAA Foundation’s most recent Traffic Safety Culture Index, distracted drivers now pose a greater implied threat to motorists’ safety than drunk drivers, aggressive drivers and drivers under the influence of drugs.
Distracted driving has reached increasingly high levels, and any step to mitigate phone use that compromises the driving experience is an important one. But it’s perhaps even more important to call out the fact that DNDWD is not purported to serve as a panacea, or to address the issue fully. Technological updates help identify the growing need for a solution—but that solution is ultimately for drivers to refrain from using their smartphones in any distracting capacity. A phone is a tool; it requires a person to (dis)engage with it in order to control its influence on the user and surroundings.
Put another way, a phone won’t always lead to distracted driving when it’s present, but distracted driving always occurs when the driver focuses attention away from the drive itself. We’d love to see the number of instances of distracted driving and related collisions reduce; software updates that make phones less immediately engaging are helpful, but nothing is more powerful than putting the phone away before getting behind the wheel.
Features are by definition a function, a contributing characteristic, of a product. Their role is to provide added value. The more we focus on the features of a powerful tool like a smartphone, the less we focus on the tool’s overall influence on our attention–and our lives.