In a decision sure to stoke a lot of discussion about distracted driving, the US National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that all 50 states ban the use of mobile devices while driving. The actual statement leaves a little bit of wiggle room, but clearly aims to ban even hands free use of cell phones:
To the 50 states and the District of Columbia:
(1) Ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers; (2) use the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration model of high visibility enforcement to support these bans; and (3) implement targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new law and enforcement, and to warn them of the dangers associated with the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices while driving. (H-11-XX)
So the exceptions are emergency use and the use of portable electronic devices designed to support the task of driving. The latter is a loophole big enough to drive the proverbial Mack truck through, but it certainly lets GPS manufacturers off the hook. But might we eventually be required to put our phones in car mode, just as we do with airplane mode when we fly?
Now the feds don’t have the authority to implement such a ban, but they strongly influence congressional and state action, often by requiring states to go along with federal recommendations or see federal highway construction funds withheld.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Distracted driving is a huge issue, resulting in a reported 5,474 fatalities in 2009, with 995 of those linked to cell phone use (PDF). Of course the use of smartphones has exploded in the last two years, and I’m betting that number is climbing dramatically.
Nevertheless, the reality is that many people conduct business on the go these days. And some studies may have overstated the risk from distracted driving. Combine all this with an overall drop in highway fatalities in recent years (PDF) and I think you can see that this is going to be a contentious issue.
Meanwhile, auto manufacturers are working on simplifying “infotainment systems,” also at the behest of the feds:
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans to issue soon, likely by the end of the year, new guidelines for the design of in-car multimedia systems aimed at reducing their potential to tempt drivers’ eyes away from the road.
Which makes it sound like these two agencies aren’t completely on the same page.
As voice command interfaces improve, some of the risks may be reduced. Or perhaps they’ll just be displaced. Instead of needing to look at your phone, will you instead be distracted by wanting to text using voice command, etc.? This is one of the main reasons I continue to prefer dedicated GPS units over smartphone navigation. There is simply too much going on on the phone, with the temptation to use it for playing music, get directions and see what that text from my wife says. Multi-tasking and driving don’t mix!
Alright folks, your turn. Please chime in with your thoughts on distracted driving and the feds nudging states towards a total cell phone ban. And please be safe out there.