Ford, Verizon Support Distracted-Driver Law — And Its Loophole

Image: ##http://cdn.rnbphilly.com/files/2010/01/text-messaging.jpg##RNBPhilly##

Yesterday, Ford became the first automaker to endorse a bill, introduced by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), to ban distracted driving. When a similar bill was introduced in the last session, Ford was the first to endorse it then, too.

McCarthy’s bill requires USDOT to set minimum standards for state bans on “the use of hand-held mobile devices on a public road while operating a moving or idling motor vehicle, except in the case of an emergency.” If a state violates USDOT’s minimum standards, that state would lose 25 percent of its federal highway transportation funding. The bill also directs the agency to conduct a study on distracted driving, particularly among young drivers. However, the bill includes a big loophole: It provides an exception for voice-operated, vehicle-integrated devices.

In a press release, Ford Vice President Pete Lawson said, “Ford believes hands-free, voice-activated technology significantly reduces that risk by allowing drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.”

The USDOT-supported distracted driving prevention group, Focus Driven, says hands-free devices don’t do the trick. “Studies show hands-free devices provide no safety benefit,” they say. “It’s the conversation, not the device, that creates the danger.”

That doesn’t stop automakers from touting their safety records when they introduce hands-free technology. Two years ago, the Alliance of Automobile Manufaturers, which represents 11 major automakers, endorsed a ban on the use of handheld devices while driving – but at the same time, it congratulated Ford for launching “its factory-installed, hands-free device called Ford Sync, allowing drivers to answer their phone without searching for it.”

Verizon came out last week in favor of Rep. McCarthy’s distraction ban too, but its statement is a little fishy. It says the company supports the bill, which “will require the U.S. Department of Transportation to study the impact of in-vehicle wireless use and recommend legislative activity based on the findings of the study.”

McCarthy’s bill does considerably more than study the problem, but Verizon makes no mention of the stronger provisions of the bill that would actually prohibit driving while talking or texting.

At any one time, nine percent of drivers are talking on cell phones, which makes those drivers four times as likely to crash [PDF]. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 5,474 people died as a result of driver distraction in 2009, making up about 16 percent of all auto crash fatalities that year. The numbers could be even higher than that: A study released last year by the NHTSA and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that “80 percent of automobile accidents and 65 percent of near-accidents involved at least some form of driver distraction within three seconds of the crash or near-miss.”

Enforcement has been proven to reduce distracted driving. According to Rep. McCarthy, “Immediately after New York banned cell phone use while driving in 2001, cell phone use declined an estimated 47 percent” and has gone down another 24 percent since then.

Yesterday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the results of two pilot enforcement and education programs aimed at distracted driving.

“The one-year study showed the rate of electronic device use while driving dropped significantly in both pilot programs,” LaHood wrote in his blog. “Syracuse showed an overall decrease of 32 percent in both handheld phone use and texting. Hartford showed an even more impressive 57 percent drop in handheld phone use and a stunning 72 percent drop in texting behind the wheel.”

  • Anonymous

    While I’m perfectly willing to believe that hand-free conversations are as distracting as hand-held conversations, I find it very difficult to believe that the dangers of texting while driving aren’t far greater.  The Focus Driven link doesn’t mention texting at all.

    Reduced ability to process visual stimuli is one thing, but eyes off the road is another thing entirely.  If this bill requires bans on texting while driving, it is a tremendous step forward, even if it could be better on the hands-free issue.

  • Anonymous

    The car companies love federal legislation because they need to bribe only one legislature to get their loopholes.  The federal government should keep its mitts off this issue: let the states govern their own vehicle codes.   It’s a classic case of a bill with a catchy title but at the heart of it would gut real attempts to address the issue.

  • Anonymous

    How could a federal bill which “sets a minimum standard for state bans” “gut real attempts to address the issue” at the state or municipal level?  Also, where’s this classic “catchy title”?

  • Anonymous

    How could a federal bill which “sets a minimum standard for state bans” “gut real attempts to address the issue” at the state or municipal level?  Also, where’s this classic “catchy title”?

  • Richard

    djc- I haven’t read the bill itself, but the way this writeup reads, the bill would set a Federal *minimum* standard for regulations, but would still allow states to pass more stringent rules if they wish. Kind of like how states can have more stringent alcohol regulations, but at a minimum they must institute a drinking age of 21 if they want their federal transportation money.

  • I’m not sure the benefit of a law if it’s not publicized and enforced.  San Francisco banned driving while talking on cell phones a while back but I seriously doubt SFPD has ever pulled anyone over for breaking this law, so what I see around me are a remarkable a number of drivers who blatantly yak while driving.  (Maybe 1 in 3?)  And then there are the texters while driving, a practice akin to hiking near a cliff edge blindfolded while juggling bowling balls, but these folks are easy to spot in San Francisco, too.

    From bizjournal.com, some info from Southern California:

    “Since California passed a law against texting while driving, the
    number of drivers seen doing it has nearly tripled, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California

    Automobile Club of Southern California
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    The rate reported by the auto club, which used the same methods to
    measure distracted driving before and after the January 2009 ban, rose
    from 1.4 percent to 4.1 percent. The group said a ban on talking on
    mobile phones held in the hand while driving has been far more effective
    than the state’s effort against texting.”
     

  • StatsDude

     I must confess, I am a little confused. If it is the conversation that is truly distracting, and not the device, is the implication that in car conversations should be banned also (not talking to the passenger?)

  • I know of a co-worker who was pulled over in SF/Bay Area for using his phone on speaker-phone mode in his hand–officer who wrote him the ticket said that that wasn’t “hands free” because he still had the phone in his hand.
     
    The phone companies could easily reduce this problem–don’t let calls/SMSs go through when the handset is obviously moving at greater than 25 mph.

  • John Murphy

    I text on Caltrain, which goes 85 MPH.

  • I completely agree with you—I also find that claim problematic. It seems inconceivable that conversations between drivers and passengers could be outlawed, so it would have to be proven that conversing by hands-free device is somehow fundamentally different than conversing with a person in the car.

  • Anonymous

    For the same conversation the two have a similar negative impact: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1369847802000128 .  However a  passenger is able to modify conversation based on conditions, where a remote speaker may be more likely to ask challenging questions at inappropriate times.

    Ideally you address this by placing a higher burden of duty on drivers.  You hit someone and it’s your fault, you lose your license.  Then let the driver decide how to reduce the risk.  Speeding laws, for example, are necessary to keep traffic moving uniformly.  But the laws such as those discussed here hinge on micro-management.  You can’t enumerate every possible distraction.

  • Anonymous

    For the same conversation the two have a similar negative impact: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1369847802000128 .  However a  passenger is able to modify conversation based on conditions, where a remote speaker may be more likely to ask challenging questions at inappropriate times.

    Ideally you address this by placing a higher burden of duty on drivers.  You hit someone and it’s your fault, you lose your license.  Then let the driver decide how to reduce the risk.  Speeding laws, for example, are necessary to keep traffic moving uniformly.  But the laws such as those discussed here hinge on micro-management.  You can’t enumerate every possible distraction.

  • Katie Matchett

    There is some evidence (e.g. this study from the NHTSA http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811380.pdf) that conversing with a passenger is highly correlated with crashes. Note this is a correlation, note a cause. I’ve heard it argued that there are differences in the “distraction” from an in-car vs. cell phone converstation, perhaps in part because the passenger in question is also watching the road, and can alert a driver to potential dangers in a way that someone on a cell phone cant.

    Katie M.
    http://www.wherethesidewalkstarts.blogspot.com

  • Katie Matchett

    There is some evidence (e.g. this study from the NHTSA http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811380.pdf) that conversing with a passenger is highly correlated with crashes. Note this is a correlation, note a cause. I’ve heard it argued that there are differences in the “distraction” from an in-car vs. cell phone converstation, perhaps in part because the passenger in question is also watching the road, and can alert a driver to potential dangers in a way that someone on a cell phone cant.

    Katie M.
    http://www.wherethesidewalkstarts.blogspot.com

  • Anonymous

    If you follow the link, you see the title is “The Safe Drivers Act of 2011″… warm and fuzzy.  The legislation specifically excludes from the definition of “HAND-HELD MOBILE DEVICE” “any device that requires the use of either hand to activate or deactivate a feature or function, or use in a hands-free manner”.  Honestly now that I read that I am unable to parse it. What you want to watch for is that the legislation require certain devices be excluded.

  • Anonymous

    PRT! PRT! 😉

  • Jeff

    We need laws which attack the ends, not the means.  Regardless of whether one is drunk, texting, tripping on LSD, or sitting upright and sober with their eyes fixed on the road:  If you kill or injure a human being or an animal or cause property damage while operating an automobile (or a forklift, or a gun, or a toaster), you will be imprisoned.

    I may be a minority among traffic safety advocates in that I really can’t stand this whole “war on drunk driving” (or the newer war-on-distracted-driving-except-for-the-distractions-that-the-auto-and-cell-phone-industry-won’t-compromise-on).  It reinforces the notion that so long as you’re sober, stay within 10 MPH of the speed limit, and don’t run red lights, you are a perfect little angel and cannot be held responsible for any “accidents” which may occur while you are driving.

  • Albert

    To me it seems obvious that a conversation with a person located in the car is qualitatively different from a conversation with someone who isn’t there and must be imagined.

    As new-age-y as this might sound: when you’re talking with someone who is located elsewhere, your awareness at least partially “travels” to that other location, reducing your awareness of your actual location.  I believe this is mostly what the studies have attributed the difference to.

    This is a separate and more important danger than that of a distant conversing person not being able to alert the driver to any sudden danger.

  • Bob Davis

    If I’m out driving with my wife, and we’re approaching a tricky interchange or merge location, especially at night or in foul weather, I’ll ask her to “hold that thought” until we’re in the clear, and she realizes that “safety is of first importance.”

  • Anonymous

    I did follow the link, but I didn’t think “Safe Drivers Act” was particularly catchy or misleading, it’s certainly no “PATRIOT Act” or “No Child Left Behind Act”.  Having skimmed the bill, I didn’t see any reason to believe it would prevent states from restricting more than just that very specific definition of “hand-held mobile device.”  It would appear that the law is essentially guaranteed to spur “real attempts to address the issue” by the states.  Some states will begrudgingly enact the bare minimum requirements, and some will go further.

    It’s your apparent knee-jerk anti-federal libertarianism that I was objecting to.  Made all the more onerous by wrapping itself in a false claim that the law would impede the states from solving the “real” problem.  As if doing nothing were always better than doing something whenever the Federal government is concerned.

  • Anonymous

    Not to mention passengers.

  • Agreed. To promote safe driving you have to close the loop on accountability for causing harm. This kind of regulation dances around the real issue. But by expanding the class of behaviors that are actionable in the event of a crash, it helps. It helps inefficiently, in an arbitrarily narrow way.

    The more things you can’t do and drive–because you’ll be ticketed even if nothing goes wrong *and* because you’ll trigger actual accountability for when things do go wrong–the less attractive driving is and the more support there is for practical alternatives. So these measures have my lukewarm support. Also my selfish support, because it is easy to avoid drinking and texting when you only drive once a year or so.

  • carma

    statsdude,  as a driver for > 17 years.  YES, sometime a conversation with a passenger CAN be very distracting as well.  i have often times been with my wife and if there is a high alert area that i need to totally focus on the road, i will not converse so that i can be aware of my surroundings.

    I also believe that its NOT the hands free that keeps you unfocused.  while it may distract a certain amount of drivers b/c they feel they need to tilt their head while they are talking, it is ultimately the conversation that gets them distracted.

    think about all the standard shift transmission drivers out there.  i highly doubt many keep their both hands on the wheel after a shift.  (even for automatic drivers who pose their hand on the shifter).  as i driver of primarily a stick shift.  i will say that its NOT the fact that you have to have both hands on the wheel that will make you unsafe.  it is the actual conversation.
    btw, there are times where it does warrant both hands on the wheel.  (such as emergency skidding as an example)

  • freetrafiic robot

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  • Driver

    It’s easy to avoid drinking and driving and texting and driving if you choose not to do these actions, no matter how much or how often you drive.  

    So Jeff, a subway motorman who kills someone who has jumped on the tracks either intentionally or accidentally should be imprisoned?  I don’t follow the logic.

  • Driver

    It’s easy to avoid drinking and driving and texting and driving if you choose not to do these actions, no matter how much or how often you drive.  

    So Jeff, a subway motorman who kills someone who has jumped on the tracks either intentionally or accidentally should be imprisoned?  I don’t follow the logic.

  • Driver

     I brought this up once before.  I notice a significant difference in my attention between talking to a passenger and talking on the phone.  I also think it’s more than just the passenger being able to point things out.  The level of awareness of your physical surroundings is different, even if nothing out of the ordinary is happening and there is nothing to “point out”.

  • Anonymous

    Is there any evidence that harsher punishment for things like manslaughter, murder or hit and run accidents have any deterrent effect on commission rates?  I believe the evidence indicates the effect is minimal if it exists.  This is supported by the fact that harsher punishment of DUI (greater fines, increased incarceration time) has shown less deterrent effect than simple automatic license revocation (see http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/DrinkingAndDriving.html).

    Many people will hear about someone killing someone while driving and disregard the harshness of the punishment, assuming it couldn’t happen to them.  Some people really believe they are special and can drive and drink and/or text without consequences.  It is better to make it clear that consequences exist regardless of their erroneous self-perceived competence.

    The effectiveness of DUI criminalization and education campaigns in reducing traffic fatalities is pretty certain.  There’s little reason to suspect that similar actions against texting while driving wouldn’t be similarly effective.

  • Driver

    Look at the number of drivers killed every year.   If that consequence is not enough to make people drive as careful as possible, I can’t think of any other consequence that would work. 

  • Sorry, Jeff, but I disagree. Car crashes are common from a social perspective, but not from an individual one: a driver’s probability of getting into an accident on any given trip is very low. Therefore, a consequence-based law will just make drivers think “Oh, it won’t happen to me.”

    To be effective, a law needs to target a behavior right after it happens, rather than much later when it causes an accident, and have universal enforcement in order to seem fair in the public’s eyes as well as avoid the “I’m an above-average driver, I’m fine” issue.

  • carma

    Jeff, You are taking the law into a very misguided area.  Lets say someone jumps off an overpass with the intention of suicide.  and then a car hits and kills that jumper.  Do you imprison the driver?

    Even better, you blow out a tire, and you crash into a mailbox and only cause property damage.  do you go to jail?

    seriously dude, accidents DO happen.  and they even happen to very safe drivers who follow every rule and drive defensively.  are you SERIOUSLY advocating that we imprison tens of thousands of people DAILY??

    anybody who thinks every driver is at fault for anything without even looking at evidence is a moron.  sorry, but, its almost like me saying all cyclists are reckless b/c they all run every red light.

  • Joe R.

    A lot of phones these days have GPS built in.  I agree the solution to the problem is technological.  It’s easy enough to determine if the phone is on a road or on a railroad.  If on a road, nothing gets received or sent if the phone is in motion.  Of course, the telecom companies will fight this tooth and nail.  Another longer term technological solution is to just automate the driving process.  That pretty much fixes the issue entirely.

  • Joe R.

    carma, this is why I think it makes sense for cars to have black boxes.  Even though the auto industry and the public are dead set against it, black box info in the event of a collision makes it much easier to determine fault.  Cars nowadays monitor everything.  A blowout would easily show up in the black box data, for example.  Other data like speed or acceleration would make it possible to determine a car’s path immediately prior to a collision.  You could even overlay this with very accurate GPS-based timestamps to determine which driver ran a light at an intersection (the city’s traffic light computers should have records of the state of every traffic signal with millisecond accuracy).  Any good driver should welcome this as it would exonerate them if they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (yes, accidents happen to the best drivers because you just can’t anticipate and plan for every conceiveable contigency).

    As for penalties, I personally don’t care if a driver who kills or injures someone due to neglect or incompetence goes to jail.  Jail should be reserved for people who are a danger to society.  I do not however want that person to ever get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle ever again for as long as they live.  That should be the law.  Kill or seriously injure someone through neglect or incompetence-you never drive again.  Lesser injuries would merit varying periods of suspension from driving.  Suicides and the like don’t get punished of course.  Sometimes collisions are just unavoidable.

  • carma

    Joe,

    I welcome black boxes as well. in fact, im very tempted to buy a video data recorder for my own car when im behind the wheel.  i feel there are too many stupid drivers out there as well. and sometimes i feel i need to present the burden of proof if god forbid anything happens.

    i dont know what it is these days, but drivers ARE getting worse and worse.  when i first got behind the wheel. i was confident and as bad as drivers were in NYC, i still felt semi-confident in other drivers.

    nowadays, i can write a novel on all the idiotic things drivers do.  its freaking unbelievable.

    i pledge i will never to text, drink and drive, chat on the phone (even speaker), and drive distracted. too bad every other driver cant do the same.

  • Anonymous

     Hope u like my new music video about dangers of texting and driving – Won’t Start Texting http://t.co/26T0Zvp

  • Fu Shnickens

    The study you link claiming drivers are 4x more likely to crash uses dubious statistical methods.  The claims made there are not defensible, relying on what the authors themselves term as “crude analysis”.  They aren’t able to conclusively say if a driver was or was not on the phone for any crash situation, so they just guess with a confidence interval.  The study didn’t attempt to mitigate any other potential correlative factors, including fatigue, a crying baby, talking to a passenger, or applying makeup while driving (is ANYTHING dumber or more dangerous that that doozy?).

    Probably the most damning point – that study, published in early 1997, was based on accidents in 1994 and 1995.  1995!!!  I think we can all agree that people’s behaviors and skills have changed with respect to mobile phones in the past 16 years.  Given the author has a PhD in statistics, I have to assume that the data available back then was much less precise than today; is there no more recent study with better data we can quote on how likely a phone user is to crash than a non-phone user?Let’s not quote ancient papers like this as fact.

    (PS Are we surprised that so many crashes involved distraction less than 3 seconds prior to the crash?  If everyone was paying full attention all the time, the roads would be pretty darn safe.  Next study:  Women Enjoy Shopping)

  • Herenthere

    Well hands free calling probably uses the same brain function as if you were talking to fellow passengers in the car, which if you outlawed it would make it tough for a cop to distinguish between either unless you’re the only one in the car – but you could say you talk to yourself out loud…

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