We Have the Tech to Stop Distracted Driving. But Do We Have the Will?

PSAs, like this one from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, are no match for the temptation to use cell phones while driving.
PSAs, like this one from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, are no match for the temptation to use cell phones while driving.

Distracted driving is rampant — the most recent proof comes from a huge data release from Zendrive, which found that drivers with smartphones use them on 88 percent of trips. Zendrive estimates that each day in the U.S., roughly 600 million car trips involve distracted driving.

Federal agencies already attributed about 10 percent of annual traffic fatalities — about 3,500 to 4,000 lives lost — to distracted driving. Zendrive’s data suggests the actual number may be much higher.

Paul Steely White, executive director of New York City’s Transportation Alternatives, says the educational approach to the problem, like PSAs warning drivers about distraction, is clearly falling short.

“If millions of ads admonishing the behavior only gets us 12 percent compliance, we need a tech fix for this,” he said.

So what is stopping us from implementing technological solutions to preventing distracted driving? Smartphone makers like Apple have long had the technology to sense when a car is in motion. They can also tell whether the phone user is a driver or a passenger and disable certain features, like texting, social media accounts and videos.

The problem is, the smartphone industry doesn’t want to use this technology to prevent distracted driving.

The New York Times reported last September that Apple patented a “lock out” mode back in 2008. In the text of the patent, the company explains that this type of safety feature may be the only way to prevent thousands of needless deaths: “Texting while driving has become so widespread that it is doubtful that law enforcement will have any significant effect on stopping the practice.”

But mobile device manufacturers, afraid of losing market share, have foregone these fixes — and federal safety regulators have let them.

In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration first proposed a series of “voluntary guidelines” to reduce the potential for driver distraction. The first round of guidelines applied to in-dash information systems. More recently, NHTSA has proposed guidelines for hand-held devices.

These guidelines — which have not been finalized — ask companies to automatically pair handheld phones with in-dash systems to at least free up drivers’ hands and reduce the time drivers aren’t looking at the road. (Although these in-dash systems impose a degree of cognitive impairment as well.) NHTSA also urges device makers to include a “driver mode” that would disable more distracting features while the car is in motion. For example, a dash-mounted device would not display the Twitter app or allow the driver to text.

But these rules are weak, and no company will be forced to comply with them. There is a legal question of whether NHTSA, which has regulated cars, has the authority to regulate cell phones. In 2013, Car and Driver spoke with agency officials who said they expect the voluntary guidelines for in-dash systems to eventually become mandatory.

Deb Trombley, a spokesperson for the National Safety Council, said her organization would prefer mandates, not recommendations, but that the political climate is not favorable. A National Safety Council survey found that if phone makers did comply with distracted driving guidelines, it could have a huge impact. More than half of all drivers reported they would not uninstall safety features that limited use of certain apps behind the wheel [PDF].

Meanwhile, distracted driving is becoming just another habit to millions and millions of Americans. To advance regulations with teeth — the kind that would save thousands of lives a year — we might need a mass movement that delivers a shock to the political system, like the ones waged by Ralph Nader for seat belts, or by Mothers Against Drunk Driving to establish strict drunk driving laws. And right now, no one is doing that in an organized way.

I reached out to MADD to ask if the group is doing any advocacy around distracted driving. The answer was no.

  • Joe R.

    Ouch, that’s tough going bald in your twenties but apparently it doesn’t bother you. I started going noticeably bald in my early 40s. I’m at the point now where I’m seriously considering a hair transplant. I don’t look particularly good bald (I think you do). I haven’t started going gray yet, so that’s yet another reason I want a full head of hair. My mom is only about 20% gray at 78.

  • SDGreg

    Under this proposal, while walking or using transit I wouldn’t be able to use my phone. That’s ridiculous. But beyond that, installing such technology every place people drive would be cost prohibitive. There are simply better ways to achieve the desired goal.

  • Joe R.

    As I wrote below you could probably make the blocking directional enough so sidewalks are unaffected. As for public transit, many transit systems are already installing wifi. Buses could receive the signals for their wifi via a different frequency than that used for cellphones.

    All that said, why is it so important that people absolutely have to use their devices for the relatively short time they’re traveling by car or public transit? I don’t even own a cell phone. Unless you’re a doctor or person with a very essential position everything can wait. In my opinion we’re way too connected these days.

  • We had the technology to stop most severe auto accident injuries back in the 1950s as well as prevent most rear-end collisions back in 1971. My dad had a 1971 Mercury Monterrey that had both front seat air bags and automatic braking installed on it. How long was it before all new cars had air bags? Another 30 years? Only a few car models have automatic braking today in-fact. My mom’s Lincoln has automatic braking.

    We have had the technology to reduce drunk driving by 99% in equipped vehicles since the early 1980s too, but local governments, auto injury attorneys, emergency medical personnel, and insurance companies would far rather still allow drunk driving as it is such a cash cow.

    My wife’s Tahoe has voice-recognition texting and Bluetooth calling through the car radio, while my 2012 Grand Cherokee just has Bluetooth, but you still have to dial phone numbers and that is distracting. I swear, it was much easier to make calls while driving with my old 3G flip phone with its raised keypad than it is with the latest in 4G videophones, which don’t have raised keypads.

    It would be easy to prevent phones in motion from making calls or texts but then bus and train riders couldn’t use their phones in motion either. Perhaps if phones just didn’t allow texting while in-motion we could prevent that problem anyway.

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