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Driven to distraction? Here’s how to stay off your phone in the car.

To keep your eyes on the road, learn how to set your phone to "do not disturb" while driving or download an app to help you block phone use.

The iPhone's Do Not Disturb While Driving function is one way to prevent phones from illuminating or dinging when in motion.
The iPhone's Do Not Disturb While Driving function is one way to prevent phones from illuminating or dinging when in motion.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ

Nearly 80 percent of Pennsylvania drivers say it is never acceptable to email, text, or use social media while driving, a recent AAA survey found. Yet 70 percent of drivers talk on the phone, and 87 percent engage in unsafe behavior, including driving while distracted.

More crashes involved distracted driving than drunken driving in Pennsylvania in 2017, state data show. According to AAA, 92 percent of Pennsylvania drivers are concerned that other motorists are jeopardizing their safety by using phones behind the wheel. And three-quarters of the Pennsylvania drivers surveyed in March 2019 said they would support a law banning handheld cell phone use while driving. (In Pennsylvania, only texting and driving is illegal.)

One of the simplest ways to curb your in-car phone use is to enable a “do not disturb while driving” mode on your phone. One study by a University of Pennsylvania professor who is studying the best ways to stop cell phone use while driving showed that having such a mode automatically turned on decreased phone use while driving by 50 percent. Three-quarters of drivers using that feature said it had made them safer drivers in a 2017 survey by the insurance company EverQuote.

A December study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety of iPhone users who had been prompted to try it as part of a software update found that 20 percent of people had the feature turned on. People using the iPhone feature or an external app were “less likely to report conducting phone calls and sending emails or text.”

You have two options: Turn on your phone’s built-in driving mode or download a safe-driving app.

Here’s how:

  1. iPhones have a “Do Not Disturb While Driving” setting that detects when you’re driving and makes your phone stay silent and your screen dark. Anyone who texts you gets an automatic reply saying that you’re driving (you can customize who gets this and what it says); they can reply “urgent” to make a notification sound on your phone, if needed. A call will come through only if it’s from someone in your favorites list who calls twice in a row. You can still have navigation or music apps going.

  2. To turn it on, go to Settings > Do Not Disturb and scroll down to the “Do Not Disturb While Driving” section.

  3. If you leave the app on automatically, it will detect whenever you’re in motion — on a train, bus, or as a passenger, and you have to tap “I’m Not Driving” to be able to use the phone. However, you can set it to turn on only when your phone is connected to your car Bluetooth. Or, you can manually turn the app on each time you drive. The mode can be pinned to the control center for easier access.

  4. On Androids, users have to manually turn on Do Not Disturb whenever they drive. The best bet for Android users is to download a separate app for driving.

  5. AT&T DriveMode for Android silences notifications and calls when the phone is in motion, allows you to use music and navigation apps, and features auto-replies to messages and calls. Driving Detective for Android detects when you’re moving and turns on Do Not Disturb mode.

  6. Google Pixel 2 or 3 allows you to set your phone to automatically turn on Do Not Disturb when you’re driving (Pixel 2) or turn on driving mode (Pixel 3). Do Not Disturb stops most notifications, and you can customize what comes through to your phone. Your phone will sense when you’re in motion. Here’s how.

Other options

Meanwhile, other apps aiming to motivate people to stay off their phones have begun to proliferate. Insurance and app companies alike now have ad campaigns urging drivers to stay off their devices; ZenDrive, for instance, asks people to “pledge to #TextYouLater” by posting a screenshot of your auto-response on social media and tagging friends. Geico created a “Smartdog” mascot to urge people to turn on the Do Not Disturb While Driving mode.

  1. Apps like ZenDrive, Motovate, and LifeSaver are available so employers can prevent their fleets of drivers from using the phone behind the wheel. They’re also marketed to parents who want to keep their teens safe. (The iPhone mode can also be enabled by parents on their kids’ phones.)

  2. TrueMotion, SAFE 2 SAVE and similar apps aim to block phone use in the car and collect driver behavior data while allowing drivers to earn points that can be redeemed for rewards, such as gift cards or discounts. Some of these apps also allow you to track family members or friends and compete on a scoreboard.

  3. Insurance companies have developed similar apps that track your driving— everything from what speed you’re going to how hard you brake to whether your phone is in your hand — and then offer rewards or insurance discounts for safe driving habits.

  4. Some apps, such as Drivemode Dash and Android Auto, change your phone’s interface while you’re in transit to simplify app use. While they claim to make driving safer, taking your eyes off the road at all while driving increases your risk of a crash.