Screen-Free Driving

There’s no excuse for using your smartphone while you’re driving.


My new wife and I decided to go on an extended honeymoon after our wedding last year. She’s a wedding photographer and has the winter months completely off, so we escaped the harsh Pittsburgh winter and drove south to hang out with the rest of the snowbirds. We drove to Key West and hugged the coast of the Gulf of Mexico until we reached Austin.

It was an amazing trip and we logged about 12,000 miles of driving over three months. The most surprising thing we noticed was how many people used their phones while they were driving. Not just “talk on the phone with it held up to my ear,” but actually ignoring the road while tapping around on their smartphone screens. Unbelievable!

The problem

We were careful never to have the driver using their phone. Whoever was the passenger was also the navigator and text messaging maestro.

But people who are alone in their cars don’t have the luxury of a second set of hands to do their smartphone bidding. We’d be following a slow moving car that was swerving all over the highway. At first, we thought they were drunk until we passed them and realized that, of course, they were staring at their phone screens. You could pick them out from a mile away. I’m sure you’ve seen those people, too. Those distracted drivers.

At night, it was even worse. We’d see people barely staying on the road with the sweet glow of their smartphone illuminating their distracted face. Yikes!

Anecdotally, it was a vanishing small percentage of people doing it, maybe something like 1.5%. Small enough that we would only see a handful of people each day, but large enough to really make us worry. According to the National Safety Council, a quarter of all car accidents involve a driver on their cell phone. All it takes is one small accident and your life can change forever.

My solution

I’m an app developer and I see everything through app-colored glasses, so of course, this problem can be solved with an app.

Introducing Focus

Train yourself to drive screen free

Similar to my other app, Moment, Focus is all about tracking your phone use, but Focus only counts your phone use while you’re driving. The app automatically detects when you start driving and tracks your phone use. After each trip, you’ll get a little notification letting you know exactly how long you were on your phone during that drive.

“Congratulations! You weren’t on your phone at all during that drive” or “You were on your phone for 14 seconds during that drive. Shame on you 😔”

Tracking and knowing your phone use is cool, but what does the app do to actually prevent you from driving distracted?

Training, not blocking

Focus doesn’t block any of your phone’s features. It’s not about putting up a wall. There are always ways around that. The goal isn’t to make it harder to use your phone while you’re driving; it’s to make you not want to use your phone at all.

If you pick up your phone while you’re driving and start tapping around, you’ll hear my voice urging you to put down your phone and focus on the road. I’ll start out pleasant and nice (“Please put down your phone.”), but quickly get angry if you keep using your phone (“Eyes on the road, chief!”).

I’ll be quiet as soon as you lock your phone and put it down. Think of it like me over your shoulder nagging you to stop looking at your phone screen while you’re driving. That is what I wish I could do to all of those distracted drivers we saw on our road trip.

The idea is to wear you down so that you *know* my voice will not stop you until the second you put down your phone.

How is your phone use tracked inside Focus?

Similar to steps on a FitBit, I wanted to give a person one metric to keep an eye on. One number to keep you motivated and in check.

I settled on screen time while driving in the past month, in minutes and seconds. That lets people feel the weight of their bad habits, but gives them a chance to improve over time.

That number is solely your screen-time and doesn’t include phone calls. Talking on a phone call isn’t great either, but calls don’t count against you inside the app. The time you spend on phone calls while driving is tracked inside the app as a separate metric, in case you’re curious.

Me

I used to think of myself as a stickler about using my phone while driving. Ask my friends and family and they’ll tell you I drive like a grandpa; 3 miles per hour below the speed limit and my hands constantly at 10 and 2.

My very first month with Focus installed while I was building it, the app sat in the background invisibly logging my phone use while I was driving.

I logged 8 minutes and 14 seconds of screen-time in those 31 days. As much as I denied it myself, I am a big part of the problem.

Or was. I’m proud to say I’m down to 1 minute and 12 seconds this past month. But that’s still way too long. My goal is to get that below 30 seconds. It sounds really easy, but it is not. Thirty seconds on your phone is about changing a song in the Music app 3 times. Or changing your destination in your GPS app once.

Thirty seconds might not seem like a long time when you’re on a straight highway, but it’s a lifetime if you swerve off the road or another car makes an unexpected move.

Focus is available for iOS on the App Store for $9.99.

~Kevin Holesh (kevin@justdrive.io)