Texting and driving is a scourge that jeopardizes the lives of every single person who uses public roads. It’s resulted in the creation of new laws, and attracted a major national campaign to find a resolution to something that seems relatively innocuous. Even notoriously bleak German filmmaker Werner Herzog, who made a thirty-minute documentary detailing the consequences of texting and driving last year, declared that it’s the most important issue that he can think of. “The consequences are catastrophic, and the statistics are appalling,” Herzog said at the time. “This campaign certainly comes at the right time. It had to be done. Everything else is of secondary importance.”
Everyone from lawmakers to German nihilists to people who suffered horrifying losses as a result of distracted drivers causing collisions has weighed in on the problem—but it took Texas country star Robert Earl Keen to suggest a solution.
Keen, who appears in Austin-based commercials for AT&T’s GigaPower network, tweeted a potential solution to the problem of texting and driving on Monday: before you leave for a trip, text #X to anyone who you expect might contact you, to let them know that you are unavailable while you’re behind the wheel. The tweet was tagged with @ItCanWait, the name of AT&T’s campaign against texting and driving, and promoted by the Dallas-based company.
— Robert Earl Keen (@RobertEarlKeen1) August 11, 2014
As The Atlantic‘s Citylabs blog suggests, alerting people that you’re unavailable to text while driving is actually a pretty smart move—and they suggest taking Keen’s idea even further.
Bless Robert Earl Keen’s soul, but this campaign really doesn’t reach far enough. Actively sending a #X text to a friend (or friends) doesn’t really resemble the way that we deal with similar situations in other realms of our digital lives. When we don’t plan to get back to email for a while, we set an auto-reply. When we leave our desks for lunch, we set our chat status to away. Any can’t-text-I’m-driving notification should work the same way: automatically.
Crucially, the distracted drivers who are most prone to accidents may be engaged in several text conversations at once. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drivers in their twenties make up 27 percent of the distracted drivers involved in fatal car accidents. The cohort with the largest share of distracted drivers is the 15–19 age group, which is also the part of the population most fully integrated into the texting Matrix.
What Citylabs suggests is turning a once-useful feature on smartphones—airplane mode, which no longer serves people who use in-flight WiFi and could begin making in-flight calls before too long—into “transit mode,” which mobile users could enable before they begin driving, preventing the dopamine buzz that accompanies the “ding” of a new text message from reaching the motorist and letting anyone who attempts to send them a text message while the mode is engaged know that their friend is operating a potentially-lethal machine that requires their full attention at the moment.
While the idea itself isn’t Keen’s—if airplane mode is replaced with transit mode, Citylabs writer Kriston Capps probably deserves more credit—it’s a darn good one that Keen, by texting #X to his friends behind he gets behind the wheel, can take some satisfaction in having helped inspire. Maybe he’ll write a song about it?