Driving, not talking

Sunday, December 19, 2010 at 10:05pm
Jude Ferrara/SouthComm 

Ever been on a city bus while the driver is fiddling with a cell phone? It’s a disconcerting experience, given a number of factors — the size of the vehicle he or she is driving, the number of people dependent on that bus not crashing for their lives to continue unabated. 

Not that it’s a major problem, though, and the Metro Transit Authority intends to keep it that way. Department officials hope a little black box installed on city buses will minimize accidents — and driver dismissals. 

In April, MTA became the nation’s first mass transit agency to use Phone Blox, a literal box that both secures and silences mobile phones. The agency has installed the boxes on about half of the city’s bus fleet. 

“We’d like to think the drivers will see the benefit,” said Bob Baulsir, MTA chief operating officer, adding that Phone Blox is voluntary for drivers. “Passengers don’t want to see a bus driver on the phone.” 

When a driver hops into the captain’s chair, he’s supposed to power down his cell phone and stash it where it won’t offer distraction. With Phone Blox (whose name recalls infomercials past), a driver just plops the phone into the box and voila! — phone signals blocked, box locks, time to ride. 

MTA has a zero-tolerance policy for drivers who mess with their cell phones while behind the wheel. The agency has dismissed a handful of drivers this year for using electronic devices while driving.

“Phone Blox ensures a high level of focus from vehicle operators, thus lowering the risk and likelihood of accidents,” Baulsir said. 

The invention of Ginny Foster, an electrical engineering major at Saint Louis University, Phone Blox features an electromagnetic latching mechanism that locks when an MTA driver turns on the ignition. The box prevents a phone from sending and receiving signals. 

Foster has a patent on Phone Blox and now has a second client, the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority in Columbia, S.C.

“Feedback has been really positive,” said Foster, who supplies the boxes at no cost to MTA.

Earlier this year, the American Public Transportation Association gave MTA a Gold Award for Safety for implementing the system. 

6 Comments on this post:

By: Kosh III on 12/20/10 at 8:55

Can we also use it to block the loud and un-necessary calls of the passengers?

By: JohnGalt on 12/20/10 at 9:15

RF jamming devices are regulated by the FCC and are illegal. It will be interesting to see how this device escapes banning by the FCC.

By: catenarykat on 12/20/10 at 9:45

There's no "jamming." The box is just insulated in such a way that the signals don't get to the phone, which is placed inside. The electromagnetic device has to do only with locking the box, which is the main point, anyway.

By: JohnGalt on 12/20/10 at 12:05

So, it's nothing but an addon glove box into which the driver is supposed to promise to put his/her cellphone. Yeah. That'll work.

By: catenarykat on 12/20/10 at 12:59

Will a "glove box" lock when the engine is on and unlock when it is off? I don't think so. It did win a safety award from the national transit association, so maybe the transit pro's see some merit in it? As a regular rider, I can't imagine anything negative about trying it.
But, just suppose it was nothing but a little black box that did absolutely nothing except hold distracting devices. Even that, alone, would raise consciousness about distracted driving. Maybe parents of teenage drivers ought to listen up?

By: JohnGalt on 12/21/10 at 9:40

Or, the MTA could enforce its no cellphone use policy and have additional training for drivers on the use of the on/off switch.