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'Driver mode': An answer to distracted driver fatalities?

Crashes caused by distracted driving spiked in 2015. The Department of Transportation hopes a distraction-limiting 'driver mode' for cellphones may provide part of the solution.

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A driver uses her mobile phone while sitting in traffic in Sacramento, Calif.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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With crashes caused by distracted driving on the rise, the Department of Transportation hopes cellphone makers can help.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has released voluntary guidelines for companies that make mobile devices. One recommendation is a “driver mode” that drivers could activate, turning off some apps while the vehicle is in motion. Another suggestion is to facilitate “pairing” between mobile devices and cars to make hands-free phone use more convenient.

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These guidelines are designed to reduce fatalities caused by distracted driving, which is becoming an increasing challenge. Potential solutions like pairing systems, which let drivers use voice control on their phones, are already being implemented, while autonomous cars – which could take driver error out of the equation – are progressing. Cooperation between government and industry is also a welcome sign.

"With driver distraction one of the factors behind the rise of traffic fatalities, we are committed to working with the industry to ensure that mobile devices are designed to keep drivers' eyes where they belong – on the road," Mark Rosekind, NHTSA Administrator, said in statement.

Ten percent of traffic fatalities in 2015 involved distracted drivers, according to data released in November. That number is 8.8 percent higher than the previous year – and existing hands-free technologies don’t seem to be addressing the problem.

“It’s the cognitive workload on your brain that’s the problem,” explained Deborah Hersman, the president of the nonprofit National Safety Council and the former chairwoman of the federal National Transportation Safety Board, in an interview with The New York Times.

She cautioned, however, that these technologies could become counterproductive, encouraging people to spend even more time using their phones while driving.

And the trend continues: road fatalities rose 10.4 percent during the first half of 2016, NHTSA said.

For NHTSA, the best answer would be for cellphone makers to develop technology that automatically turns off certain phone functions – like texting – while a vehicle is in motion. Until that technology is available, however, they say a user-activated “driver mode” that disables apps could be the next best thing.

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Integrating phone functions with cars may be one way to keep drivers’ eyes on the road. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are specifically designed to minimize distractions while maintaining key functions. New cars often come with these capabilities installed.

Future solutions may include a system to detect distracted drivers, such as the one General Motors piloted in 2014, and autonomous cars. The latter, currently being pioneered by tech companies like Tesla and Google, may ultimately eliminate the need for drivers, and with it the possibility for driver error.

The NHTSA is currently taking public comments about the new guidelines as it decides whether or not to implement them. Even if put in place, automobile and cellphone makers would not be legally bound to follow the recommendations.

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.