Heading to Grandma’s? There’s an app for that

Commuters head north through Sacramento on Interstate 5. As Californians gear up for Thanksgiving weekend, entrepreneurs are pushing new technology for drivers.

As lawmakers sound the alarm about dangers of distracted driving from cell phones and other gadgets, cutting-edge entrepreneurs are already a step ahead this holiday season – producing a new generation of tools they claim will help you drive more safely.

Call it nanny software, designed to save technology-addicted drivers from their worst impulses, notably chatting on handheld cell phones and sending text messages, both illegal in California.

One new application, DriveSafe.ly, reads incoming text messages aloud, allowing the driver to keep eyes on the road.

It automatically sends a pre-recorded message of the driver’s choice back, such as: “Hey, I’m driving, txt u later.”

“People (now) have an insatiable need to be connected,” and that’s not going to go away, DriveSafe.ly creator Heath Ahrens said. “We are trying to do it in a responsible way.”

Another application turns your dash-mounted smart phone into a speed monitor, displaying both the speed limit and how fast you’re going. Surpass the limit, and the display colors change from green to red. ASafeDrive is advertised as available in Los Angeles, with expansion promised soon to other cities.

Yet another program, PhantomALERT, issues a voice warning for you to slow down when it determines you are approaching an intersection with a red-light camera, speed traps, a school zone or a railroad crossing.

Some road safety officials say the innovations look like just a new set of somewhat safer toys for drivers to play with instead of simply turning their cell phones off and focusing on the road.

But advocates say they will help drivers stay legal, stay in touch, and drive more sanely than we’ve seen on the roads lately.

“We’re mobile-device addicted,” said software entrepreneur Matt Howard of Virginia, who created the ZoomSafer smart-phone program. “Every one of us thinks we are a fighter pilot and we can multi-task zooming around town.”

Howard’s ZoomSafer screens incoming text messages, allowing in only selected calls.

It also issues a message when you start your car. Howard recorded his daughter’s voice: “Hi, Daddy. It’s me, Grace. I love you and wanted to remind you to drive safe.”

Business executive Jack Martin of Boston downloaded ZoomSafer last month after a driver killed a pedestrian near his home. Both were rumored to be texting at the time.

“When you hear stuff like that, it has gotten to the point where something has to change,” Martin said.

He’s not going cold turkey, though. It blocks most calls, but rings through for five people: his wife, his son and three business associates.

Using the program has improved his driving, he said. “It makes you more conscious of your own behavior.”

California drivers would be allowed to take those calls only if they use a hands-free phone.

Advocates say such devices encourage a safer mindset but keep communication possible with friends, family and associates.

The new technology joins innovations in voice communication already under way for several years. Auto manufacturers have begun adding voice-activated Bluetooth technology for hands-free phone use.

The turn toward safer telecommunications is spurred in part by recent efforts to crack down on distracted driving.

Text messaging is the safety issue now most under the regulatory microscope.

Unheard of just a few years ago, texting is now pervasive. More than 1 trillion texts were transmitted over U.S. networks in the last year, and the traffic continues to rise, according to CTIA – The Wireless Association, which represents Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T and other companies.

Nineteen states now ban texting while driving. Seven ban driver use of handheld phones, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called a national summit on distracted driving in October, making it one of his key safety issues.

“Too many people are being injured or killed by something that is completely within our own ability to stop,” LaHood said.

It has been, however, a game of constant catch-up for lawmakers.

In California, legislators didn’t anticipate texting when they wrote a landmark handheld phone ban three years ago. They had to hurry a second law soon afterward for texting. Now there’s talk of stricter enforcement next year.

Wireless industry officials say they support text bans, but they caution against rushing laws that may accidentally foreclose future technology that can help drivers.

“We only ask that legislators be aware of alternatives available, rather than restricting possible solutions,” said wireless industry spokesman John Walls.

Some safety experts said it’s uncertain how much safer the latest devices will prove to be.

Anne McCartt of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said studies show drivers can be distracted by a variety of types of communication, not just holding a phone.

“It is not just an issue of eyes on the road and hands to the wheel,” McCartt said. “It is keeping your mind on the road.”

Peter DeMarco of Allstate Insurance said safe driving is about common sense and doing the right thing.

“There is no phone application that can guarantee you will be a safe driver,” DeMarco said. “At the end of the day, the best practice for all motorists is to be alert and aware of your surroundings.”