Vlingo Survey Finds Epidemic of “DWT”—Driving While Texting

Text messaging, a longstanding habit among many Asian and European mobile phone users, is finally catching on with Americans. A major survey commissioned by Cambridge, MA-based speech-to-text software company Vlingo shows that 55 percent of all U.S. mobile subscribers send text messages—and 42 percent use their phones for texting as much as they do for calling. All of which is great news for handset manufacturers and cellular providers, who often charge by the message.

The bad news is that 28 percent of all survey respondents admitted to sending text messages while behind the wheels of their cars—which, let’s just be plain, is an incredibly stupid form of multitasking. Remember all those studies out of the University of Utah showing that talking on a mobile phone while driving reduces even a young person’s reaction time to that of a senior citizen? Texting is worse. Much worse.

And the practice is even more widespread among young people: 50 percent of teenagers surveyed in the Vlingo study and 52 percent of respondents aged 20 to 29 admitted to driving while texting, or “DWT.”

“To us, the message in the data is that we’ve got a problem now, but it’s going to get a lot worse as the younger generation comes up,” says Dave Grannan, Vlingo’s CEO. “It’s our belief that this is a serious public policy and safety issue that we need to address both with public policy and technology.”

We’ll get back to that “technology” part in a moment—since Vlingo does, of course, have an idea in mind about how software can reduce the danger from DWT. “Obviously there is some self-interest for us in putting out a report like this,” Grannan says. “The fact is that we’re a speech-to-text company, and we think there are hands-free solutions that can be developed.”

Vlingo Report on Consumer Text Messaging HabitsBut in fairness, it should be said first that Vlingo didn’t set out to study the DWT issue specifically. It commissioned the independent research firm Common Knowledge Research Services to survey nearly 5,000 U.S. consumers from 48 states about their general text-messaging habits.

And in the process it discovered some interesting tidbits: almost 30 percent of respondents, for example, send more than 100 text messages per month, and 18 percent send more than 250. Almost 35 percent said that if they were unable to send text messages, it would have a negative impact on their lives. Among those who don’t text, the leading reasons were that it’s too expensive, that it takes too long, and that typing on a phone keyboard is a hassle.

It was when the researchers asked people about their texting behavior on the road, however, that things really got scary. Asked how often they drive and text simultaneously, 6 percent said they do it once a day, 8 percent said they do two to 10 times a day, and 1.5 percent said they do it more than 10 times a day. Among teenagers, 14 percent said they engage in DWT two to 10 times a day, and 8 percent said more than 10 times a day.

Texting from the road would be distracting enough if everyone had a Treo, a Blackberry, an iPhone, or some other device with a full QWERTY keyboard. But the survey found that 89 percent of respondents still have phones with standard 12-button keypads, which means they have to tap each key up to three times to get the letter they want. And if you’re watching your phone’s screen to see which letter you’re on, you’re probably not paying as much attention to the car ahead of you, or to the cyclist in the bike lane next to you. In studies performed in simulators at Clemson University and reported this January, drivers who were texting were 10 percent more likely to cross the road’s center line or to leave their lanes entirely.

Asked whether there should be laws against sending text messages while driving, 78.4 percent of respondents said yes. That’s an interesting statistic, considering that 28 percent of people said they drive and text at least occasionally. Even assuming the lowest possible overlap between these groups, at least 6 percent of the people surveyed regularly do something they think should be illegal. Just as interesting, 85 percent of people said they would not DWT if it were illegal—implying that 15 percent still might.

Such questions may not be theoretical for much longer: texting behind the wheel is already illegal in Washington, and some 23 other states are considering outlawing the practice. But such laws will do nothing to change people’s underlying motivations—and in the case of texting, they’re apparently highly motivated to stay in touch with their friends and family members, whether traveling at 0 mph or 60 mph.

That’s part of the reason Vlingo is working on a technological fix for the DWT problem. “Our corporate view is that the world would probably be safer if no one talked on a cell phone while driving, or ate, or drank, or put on makeup for that matter,” says Grannan. “But the fact is that people will do these things. And when it comes to texting on a phone, if people are going to do it, it’s probably better if they can do it hands-free, using their voice.”

Grannan says Vlingo, which recently cut a deal to become the sole provider of speech-driven mobile search software for Yahoo, is hard at work on beta tests of a voice-based messaging application for mobile phones, and that the company’s first commercial products in this area will be available this summer. He isn’t ready to talk about the details. But he says the application will “combine text messaging and e-mail—you will have the ability to just speak and have your words translated into a text message or e-mail message.”

Vlingo would be far from the first company to roll out a speech-to-text application for e-mail—dictation software like Dragon Naturally Speaking from Burlington, MA-based Nuance has been doing that for years. But Vlingo could be one of the first to come up with a mobile equivalent—likely by relying on the same combination of device-based software and server-side machine-learning algorithms that the company uses to process unrestricted speech into intelligible search queries.

Vlingo did not miss out on the opportunity to test the idea on survey participants. Researchers asked the respondents who already use text messaging: “If you were able to speak into your phone and have your words translated into the body of a text message, how would this affect the amount of text messages you send?” About 27 percent of respondents answered that they’d send the same number of messages, 20 percent said they’d send a few more text messages, and 28 percent said they’d send many more. For cellular providers and their software companies they partner with, that’s got to be a welcome message.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • When I am driving and want to send a short message, I press the “speech” button on the car. The car says “please say command”. I say “call jott”. The car understands this, look’s up Jott’s toll-free number, and sends it by Bluetooth to the cell-phone in my pocket. Jott answers and says “Who do you want to Jott?”. I say “myself” or “Cheryl” or whomever. It says “go ahead”. I speak the message, and then press the button on my car that hangs up the phone. Jott sends email with a transcription or what I said, plus the audio, to the associated email address. And, for some reason, this is all free; see jott.com.