This animated redhead is designed to keep you less distracted on the road.

Driving While Intexticated?

As the Darwin Awards annually demonstrate, there are those among our species who shun common sense. Fortunately for the collective gene pool, these individuals usually prove they are not the “fittest” and suffer the consequences. It doesn’t take DA contenders, though, to routinely threaten the survival of themselves and all in their vicinity. Case in point: According to a survey by Nationwide Insurance, nearly one in five people send and receive text messages while driving, an equation that adds up to millions of Americans steering with their pinkies while their eyes are on something other than the road.

Now, the list of what not to do while operating a motor vehicle is long, but if typing—even on a palm-sized keyboard— isn’t right up at the top along with drinking, sleeping, and applying makeup or shaving, it should be. Last year, nine states considered legislation specifically banning driving while texting, and Washington became the first to make it official, passing a law that took effect in January. But is this necessary? Don’t we know that distracted driving is dangerous? Has our mania for multitasking suddenly superseded sanity? Who are these one in five people?

Meet Charlene Montalbano. She pleads guilty to texting while driving and describes it as a sort of addiction. “I’d say it’s a habit,” she admits. “Human nature being what it is—because we’re so curious—when we hear that chime go off, we want to know what that message is. I’ve been awoken at 4 o’clock in the morning by a text message because I am so tuned in to the sound of that chime. You have to see it. I mean, it’s a 24/7 society, and people want to be connected. We’re conditioned to be connected.”

Before judging her too harshly, you should also know that, as director of product management for USTelematics Inc., a technology company in Wood Dale, Ill., Montalbano is in a unique position to help those who share her addiction while also making the roads safer for the rest of us. She’s doing this with a software program named Vivee, which is short for “Voice interactive, voice enhanced email” and also the name of the animated female avatar the program employs to stream your incoming text and email messages and read them to you, allowing your eyes and hands to stay occupied with driving.

Seeing Red
Once uploaded into your Windows mobile device, cell phone, hand-held GPS, or other PDA, Vivee will check in real time about every 10 seconds for new messages. Once it finds one, “she” will sound a warning chime and then automatically read it to you—up to 50 lines. “It’s nice because you can just leave [the device] in its phone holster in your car and just continue driving,” Montalbano says. “If there are times when somebody’s in the car with you and you’d rather her not read it to you, you can put it into a manual mode, which is as simple as changing the preference.”

Vivee works via a text-to-speech engine that Montalbano hand-picked for its massive word library. The result is that Vivee’s vocabulary is extensive and even includes most textspeak (e.g., “CUL8R” for “See you later!”), common foreign words and phrases, and, um, swear words. “It can be funny,” Montalbano says. “When I was doing the beta testing, I had to know the limitations of the product, so I came up with the 20 nastiest words you could think of, and she went ahead and said them. She’s not shy.”

Montalbano notes that the program also features a male avatar, which she chose for his striking resemblance to Anderson Cooper. “He’s not as popular and does not have a catchy name, but he does have a distinguished voice,” she says. Both animated characters bring full wireless Internet connectivity with them at speeds on par with many DSL services when fully installed in compatible devices.

“CUL8R”
A downside of the program is that currently it works only one way—translating the incoming message to speech. To respond, you still have to rely on the conventional (and dangerous, if not illegal) method of thumbing the keypad. But Montalbano says USTelematics is working right now to correct this problem and expects to offer a voice-to-text module in coming months.

Another potential problem (for me, anyway) is that even though Vivee allows you to keep both hands on the wheel, she doesn’t entirely remove the element of distraction. I find her distracting in the same way hands-free phones are, in that it is not the device itself but the actual conversation that is attention-diverting. Plus, it doesn’t at all help that her big blue eyes actually blink as she reads.

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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