The subject of driver distraction is again being addressed by the US Department of Transportation. This time, the agency says it is putting its foot down.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently released a "Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving" (PDF) that calls for all states to enact laws that would prevent drivers from using handheld phones. It also challenges the auto industry to adopt design guidelines for devices brought into the vehicle. "Distracted driving is an epidemic," LaHood said in a press release. "While we've made progress in the past three years by raising awareness about this risky behavior, the simple fact is people are continuing to be killed or injured -- and we can put an end to it."
It's hard to argue against all the logical points made in the DOT proposal. According to the agency, at least 3,092 people were killed in distraction-related accidents in 2010. Any proposal that calls for more oversight and education is a step in the right direction. But the question is whether this is going to be enough.
The problem is that new devices are coming into the vehicle faster than researchers can study them and automakers can fix them. The cellphone is a good example. Today the DOT says it wants to allow drivers to use hands-free phones, because the worst phone distractions are visual, rather than cognitive. But it took years for cellphones to reach this point.
Similarly, we have iPods, smartphones, GPS systems, and complicated center consoles, all of which can be visual distractions. How long will it take to reach agreement on the design of a "safe" iPod or smartphone? And while we're waiting for those devices to get safer, what new gadgets will find a home in the car?
Experts have told us they heartily agree with the DOT's position on visual versus cognitive distractions. The real problem, they say, is dialing a phone, not talking on it. "When an adult driver dials a cellphone, the odds of being in a crash or near-crash are three times higher," Charlie Klauer, a research scientist at Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute, told us in an interview this year. "For truck drivers, it's 23 times higher."
Still, that data was gathered in 2002 and 2003 -- several years before the advent of texting in the car. Research scientists agree that texting is, as Klauer put it, "in a league all its own," but the technology reached the mainstream so quickly that the automotive community has had little chance to produce quantitative studies on it. Similarly, there are few studies about the use of smartphones, Internet services, GPS systems, or any of the new breed of 15-button center consoles that have taken up residence in the vehicle.
In December, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which answers directly to Congress, called for a ban on all handheld electronic devices in the vehicle. The no-holds-barred proposal doesn't even allow for hands-free phones.
We could debate the relative merits of hands-free versus handheld phones and cognitive versus visual distractions. But the NTSB's proposal has two things going for it: It would draw a clear line in the sand, and it would leave no wiggle room for devices that are on their way but are as yet incomprehensible to most of us.
In that sense, the NTSB has gotten it right. The idea should be to allow safe exceptions to enter the vehicle after they've been studied and fixed, not before.
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