Butt Dials To 911 Are Overloading Emergency Systems, So Lock Your Phone Already

As far as I know, the last time I butt dialed anyone on my phone was in 2005, but there's a new butt dialing epidemic and its consequences are no laughing matter. A new report on San Francisco shows that butt dials to 911 are overloading emergency systems, with up to 30 percent of calls coming from wireless phones in a sample period seeming to be totally accidental. Oops.

The research, helpfully produced by our friends at Google, aimed to figure out why emergency call volume had increased so drastically in San Francisco in recent years. Though some of the call volume is real and related to the city's drug, homelessness, and crime epidemics, the butt dials are obviously a giant waste of expensive and important public resources. It's not just San Francisco, either. A few years ago, New York released 911 research indicating that butt dials, or "pocket dials," accounted for an astounding 40 percent of the calls to their city's emergency services in 2010. With over 10 million 911 calls received in total, that's literally millions of pocket dials per year.

Why are there so many accidental 911 dials happening? Upon reflection, I guess it's obvious that it's much easier to dial 911 unintentionally from a mobile phone than from a landline, and that with more and more people switching to mobile, the proportion of accidental 911 dials would increase commensurately. Touch-screen smartphones are especially easy to swipe commands onto unintentionally, and smartphone popularity has increased greatly too (including among older and less technologically-proficient users who may not quite realize what they're doing). It doesn't help that the iPhone's virtual assistant Siri is quick on the 911 trigger, a feature developed to make sure that any voice commands that seem to be 911 call requests go through but which results in false positives even when people are innocently asking Siri to charge their phones.

Obviously, you don't want to be the person calling 911 with a heart attack or an intruder on your hands, fighting people's butts for the attention of an emergency dispatcher. I'd like to think that there's a technological fix for this very technological problem, but putting a barrier between 911 and an accidental caller — like a voice CAPTCHA — might make matters worse. Who wants to be the company that produced a system that screened out a legitimate 911 call, leading to someone's death or injury? Hello, lawsuits. So, we may be stuck with accidental 911 calls for the time being, but you can prevent contributing to them — just lock your phone for goodness' sake, and teach grandma how to, too.

Image: rkris/Fotolia; Giphy