Devices could make motorist hang up and drive

Phil Berg
Car Culture

Wouldn’t it be great if you could switch off the cellphone signal to the guy who’s gabbing on his phone while driving distractedly in front of you? A group of U.S. amateur radio fans were close to developing that “hang up” device in the 1990s, inspired by military technology during the first Gulf War.

When George H. W. Bush ordered an offensive on Iraq that lasted 100 hours in February 1991, all of America watched as 42 Scud missiles were fired into Israel over a period of several weeks. The only effective defenses to these fatal attacks were electronics that sensed incoming Scuds and launched Patriot warhead-seeking missiles, and it wasn’t very successful. But the efforts that technicians from arms maker Raytheon expended to help our military industry protect Israel were legendary.

About this same time we were noticing folks driving at congestion-inducing 50 mph speeds on I-696 and on other jam-sensitive roads in the normally safe, free-flowing left lanes. Almost always, this happened in cars driven by people engaged with their new cellphones. The drivers were rarely ticketed. Frustrated by this, a group of amateur radio experts around the U.S. wondered if the same efforts used to intercept Scud missiles could help reduce cell phone-related distracted driving.

The late Phil Henry, founder of Gray Electronics in Nevada; a group of car nuts at Uniden, a national electronics company who purchased rights to Henry’s radio monitoring technology; and Henry’s techie friends almost marketed a device they developed for a remote electronic switch that could shut off nearby cellphones.

By transmitting a strong jamming signal that fooled phones into switching to a non-existent cell, a cellphone could be made to hang up.

Of course, jamming cell phones violates Federal Communications Commission rules. In 2014, the FCC fined a man $48,000 for using a jammer to cancel drivers’ cellphone conversations, and that year also fined a Chinese company $35 million for selling cellphone jamming devices.

Now the British government is proposing that carmakers do the same thing today, via software installed in new cars.

According to a report in the Guardian this month, motorists using cellphones have quadrupled there in the past two years. Because of that, the government has met with cellphone makers to require that hand-held phones disconnect while in cars at highway speeds. The kicker is that the government doesn’t think cellphone makers will comply, so lawmakers suggest they will require carmakers to restrict phones in cars by including software that jams cellphone use.

Back in Britain, Gary Rae, a campaign director for the road safety organization Brake, says the public there is fed up with lackluster distracted driving enforcement: “If industry doesn’t help voluntarily, then maybe we need to consider legislative options. Drivers who use phones, either hands-free or hand-held, have been found by researchers to be four times more likely to be in a crash resulting in injuries than drivers who were not distracted. The technology exists now to shut off mobile [phones] when they’re in a vehicle.”

Here in the U.S., the technology for individuals to hang up surrounding motorists’ cellphones has existed since the early 1990s, and some dedicated driving fans I know have already begun making use of that technology. Many days on the road I get the urge to become a tech vigilante, and wish to use a jammer myself, rather than wait for law enforcement to step into this duty.