Raleigh inventor touts texting-while-driving fix

jmurawski@newsobserver.comJanuary 2, 2012 

As a wireless technology expert, Ben Levitan knows a thing or two about cellphone use and deadly car accidents. In his day job, the Raleigh electrical engineer testifies as an expert witness in court cases involving cellphone logs that show when drivers were using their wireless phone, gabbing or texting in their final seconds of life.

In his off time, Levitan has tinkered for three years with a possible solution: a technology that disables cellphones in moving cars. To be sure, such apps are already available, but only on a volunteer basis for individual phones. Levitan is thinking of something bigger: A mandatory system for all wireless phone users.

Levitan's concept could gain urgency now that federal safety regulators have recommended an outright ban on all cellphone use by drivers. With more than half the states - and scores of towns and counties across the country - imposing their own bans, Levitan thinks it's just a matter of time until a general cellphone ban gains acceptance.

"The accidents are just horrible - whole families get wiped out," Levitan said. "It's an impairment - it's like being drunk."

Levitan, a frequent guest on TV news reports about wiretapping and cellphone tracking, was already well on the way to having a finished product ready before the National Transportation Safety Board issued its recommendation, an idea some have embraced and others distrust. A 25-year veteran of the wireless industry, Levitan has applied for patents and hired business consultants to market his idea to the telecommunications industry and regulators.

Smart Core Business Solutions, based in Cary, is now hoping to line up some demos early next year to cellphone companies and government officials, said the company's executive partner, Graham Crispin. Smart Core is also contacting investors to finance further development of Levitan's concept.

Although Levitan's system hasn't been tested on a live phone network, the challenge isn't going to be technological, Levitan predicted. The big issue will be customers responding with disbelief and outrage at a perceived Big Brother imposition, not unlike the early reactions to mandatory seat belt laws and mandatory motorcycle helmet laws.

"You're taking something away that they value," Crispin said. "It's an internal conflict between what people want others to do and what people allow themselves to do."

Levitan has named his venture NNID, short for Not Now I'm Driving.

The program, based on GPS systems that track a cellphone's position, is designed to affect drivers only. It has an override so as not to block cellphones of passengers in cars, buses or trains. It would also not affect outgoing 911 calls or incoming emergency calls from law enforcement.

However, it would block a driver's outgoing and incoming cell calls if he or she is exceeding the speed limit plugged into their system. The wireless phones could go dead at 1 mile per hour or 15 mph or any other speed, depending on how the network is programmed.

Those calls would go into voice mail or into the text archive, to be retrieved later.

When asked about the optimum speed at which phones should be disabled, Levitan doesn't hesitate before responding: Any speed above zero is too fast to be dialing, texting or concentrating on a phone conversation.

"When you drive a car, you should be paying attention," Levitan said.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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