As smartphone popularity has increased, so have instances of and casualties from distracted driving; in 2015, distraction-affected fatalities rose by 8.8 percent from the previous year, according to an August 2016 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report.

This increase was the highest percent change of all measured fatalities in the report — even exceeding the 7.2 percent increase of total fatalities, which, itself, was the highest in five decades. At least 35,092 people were killed in car collisions in 2015, and one in every 10 of these fatalities involved distraction, according to the same NHTSA report. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists three main types of driving distractions — visual, manual and cognitive — and reports that “texting while driving is especially dangerous because it combines all three types of distraction.”

Recently, according to a Sept. 24 New York Times article, families of the victims in a 2013 Texas collision have filed a lawsuit against Apple, arguing that Apple should have done something to prevent the culpable driver, Ashley Kubiak, from texting while driving. The lawsuit has thus raised a question of whether cellphone companies have a responsibility to prevent people from using their technology while driving.

Legal experts doubt that the family’s lawsuit will succeed, and in August, a Texas magistrate recommended the case’s dismissal — but the issue still warrants discussion. Although Apple has no solid legal obligation to prevent their customers from texting while driving, the company’s moral responsibility is more of a gray area.

To Apple’s credit, it does publicly discourage phone use while driving, and it has even developed hands-free technology called “CarPlay” — but that is not enough. CarPlay only works with select cars, and it only eliminates the visual and manual distractions of phone use, leaving the dangers of cognitive distraction.

Still, CarPlay is a step in the right direction, and it shows a willingness on Apple’s part to help contribute to a solution to cellphone-related distracted driving ―— so why has Apple not taken it further?

According to the same Sept. 24 NYT article, in 2008, Apple filed for a patent for technology designed to “lock out” a person’s phone if it determined that the person was driving. Apple, itself, recognized the value of such preventative technology, writing in the patent, “Texting while driving has become so widespread that it is doubtful that law enforcement will have any significant effect on stopping the practice.” Apple lawyers report that the patent was granted in 2014, but since then, there have been no indications of further development.

Formerly of the National Safety Council, private consultant David Teater theorized that Apple’s hesitance to develop such technology may stem from corporate greed and the fear of driving away customers by blocking texting while driving first: “A customer might say, ‘If Apple does it, then my next phone is a Samsung,’” he said, according to the same Sept. 24 NYT article.

Assuming Teater’s theory holds weight, such reasoning would not justify failure to develop the technology. Benefit would far outweigh any potential harm; the matter boils down to a trade-off between saved lives or minimal lost profit for Apple, a company ranked the most profitable in the world, according to an Oct. 24, 2015 USA Today article. 

That said, the likelihood of Apple’s sales decreasing significantly due to the deployment of such life-saving technology is slim. According to a Jan. 19, 2015 CNBC article, Barbara Findlay Schenck, author of “Branding for Dummies,” points out that the main reason people choose Android over Apple is affordability. Further, the CNBC article reports that a survey of 513 U.S. consumers found that nearly 94 percent of people felt “at least somewhat loyal to their [cellphone] brand.” Therefore, a new safety feature, if deployed by Apple, would be unlikely to sway large numbers of its consumers to Android.

In fact, such technology could even bolster Apple’s sales by boosting its reputation. According to the same Jan. 19, 2015 CNBC article, vice president of marketing at Carmi Levy said that Apple “sell[s] the emotional connection with consumers.” By launching a revolutionary technology that could save lives, Apple could strengthen this “emotional connection” and potentially gain customers.

Another possible reason Apple has not yet released its lockout technology is viability. Developing a program that locks drivers out of their phones while allowing passengers to continue use likely poses many challenges, but similar technology is already available. For example, the company Cellcontrol sells a device that detects the location of a phone and prohibits certain services if the phone is in the driver’s seat, according to the same Sept. 24 NYT article. Now, this technology does not come without flaws, but surely, Apple ―— arguably one of the most advanced technology companies in the world — could create something similar and work out most of the bugs.

Of course, the primary responsibility for distraction-related car collisions lies with the distracted drivers, who should be able to exhibit self-control — but clearly, that is not the case. 

The next line of defense should then be law enforcement, and the government has attempted to curb distraction-related collisions through both federal and state action: For example, President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13513 prohibits federal employees texting and driving while on government business, and legislation in 46 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands bans all drivers from texting while driving at any point, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But this is not enough; instances of distraction-related car collisions continue to rise.

As such, something else must be done. From its patent, Apple has demonstrated not only an understanding that law enforcement has a limited ability to remedy the situation on its own but also a willingness to help. From its products, Apple has demonstrated a capability to create technology that may have previously seemed impossible — or, at the very least, implausible.

Legally, courts will decide Apple’s level of responsibility in the issue and likely rule in their favor — as they should — but morally, Apple and other cellphone companies stand on shakier ground. If companies like Apple can find a more effective way to help reduce the tragedies and they decide to do nothing, then they share part of the blame.