Editorial: If you can’t resist the urge to text and drive, Apple could help

Apple’s new iPhone feature aims to save us from our worst impulses by helping to keep drivers from texting behind the wheel. But it can be thwarted.
Apple’s new iPhone feature aims to save us from our worst impulses by helping to keep drivers from texting behind the wheel. But it can be thwarted. AP

A black SUV suddenly pops into the rearview mirror, lurching across the broken white line as it closes in on your bumper. As it speeds past on the right, you catch a glimpse of the glowing rectangle propped against the steering wheel.

Texting and driving at highway speeds has become an everyday sight. We just can’t seem to put down our smartphones, although we’ve known for years that even glancing at that 6-inch touchscreen at 60 mph is a hazard to everyone on the road. President Barack Obama forbade federal employees from the unsafe practice back in 2009.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that distracted driving kills nine and injures more than 1,000 Americans every day. Shuffling CD cases or fiddling with a hamburger wrapper are dangers enough, but the CDC singles out texting because it hits the preoccupation trifecta: It occupies our eyes, our hands and our minds at the same time.

So it’s good news that Apple is trying to save us from our worst impulses. An update rolling out to iPhones next week includes Do Not Disturb While Driving, a new feature that detects when the phone is in a moving automobile. It turns the screen blank and disables most apps. It even automatically replies to incoming messages with a promise that you’ll answer when you get to your destination.

This isn’t the first proposed solution to the texting-while-driving problem. A variety of apps already aim to keep fingers off screens while in motion, and most of them are marketed to the parents of teenagers.

That makes sense. Automobile accidents are the No. 1 cause of death among teens, whose judgment is still a work in progress. But adults take the same risks every day. Kansas rightly bans all drivers from texting while driving.

Missouri’s statute nonsensically applies only to those 21 and younger. Typing out texts from behind the wheel should not be attempted at any age, even by the most experienced drivers. The law should apply to all.

Existing legislation clearly hasn’t eliminated the problem of texting on the road, just as seat belt laws haven’t forced everyone to buckle up. Some public safety experts argue that even extensive fines don’t have a significant deterrent effect.

But not strapping in, much like not wearing a motorcycle helmet, usually affects only the individual making that bad choice. Texting is far more analogous to drinking when an automobile comes into play.

Apple’s iPhone feature is a welcome step, but it does give drivers an out: You can disable it by claiming to be a passenger. Committed texters are no doubt willing to lie to their phones.

New tech tools will refine these systems in the future. Lawmakers and insurers should mandate their use when they become a reality.