by Caroline McCarthy
NEW YORK--Motorola has gone into high gear for National Safe Driving Month, and if you live in one of four U.S. cities you might even be seeing them on the roads.
Earlier this week, Motorola launched a free mobile app to decipher the country's various laws about cell phone calling and texting while behind the wheel. This weekend it's kicking off its "Get Smarter" campaign on the streets in New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, and San Francisco where locals will be offered lifts in super-compact Smart ForTwo cars where they can get a product demo of Motorola hands-free gadgets like the H17txt, a headset that reads your text messages out to you in real time and lets you set an auto-response to let your contacts know that you're driving. (Interested customers can follow @motomobile on Twitter to find out where they might be able to hitch a ride.)
On Thursday evening, a company rep picked me up in one of the logo-wrapped Smart cars and gave me a lift downtown, encouraging me to check out the H17txt in the process. We couldn't use it on my iPhone, unfortunately, because the "Motospeak" technology that powers it is only compatible with Android and BlackBerry devices. But on the Android phone that Motorola had brought for demonstrations, the headset clearly read out my test text message of "all your base are belong to us."
The funny irony is that by choosing to launch this campaign in cities like New York, Motorola may actually not be reaching its target market. The situation isn't this extreme in Chicago, Minneapolis, or San Francisco, but in many parts of the New York metro area people just don't drive very much. Paying for a parking space by the month is exorbitant, traffic is reliably horrible, and the subway system is good enough so that it's often faster to take the train than to catch one of the city's (many) taxicabs. Here, typically, when you hear about regulating the use of electronics behind the wheel, it's referring to taxi drivers, who have been banned from using cell phones, and even hands-free headsets, on the job since January.
But distracted driving remains a problem in New York. Nick, the Motorola rep driving me from midtown to Tribeca in a Smart ForTwo, said that in a single day behind the wheel he'd "already seen one accident."