For all of the uproar around distracted driving this week, nobody seems to know exactly what the problem is, let alone how to stop it. Everything from in-car makeup application to text messaging is being blamed for 6,000 deaths in 2008, some 15 percent of all road fatalities. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has heard stories of heartbreaking tragedy from families who have lost loved ones to distracted drivers, seen the statistics which say cell phone use impairs driving ability to the same extent as a .08 blood alcohol content, and he sees an opportunity to make a difference. That’s an admirable response, but LaHood’s do-right attitude is enveloping his department and administration in a perfect storm of hysteria, opportunism, and quixotic pathos.
Merely defining the problem of distracted driving is the major challenge facing the national summit on distracted driving. Text messaging while driving is the most obvious culprit, as it’s a technology of growing popularity which completely distracts drivers from the road. But bills are already working their way through congress aimed at enacting a federal ban on texting while driving. Secretary LaHood did not need to hold a national conference if his crusade were merely limited to text messaging. By defining distracted driving as an “epidemic” that goes beyond texting, or even handheld cell phone use, LaHood has opened a massive can of worms.
Ford Motor Company, whose SYNC system allows hands-free phone and texting, was an early corporate ally for LaHood’s crusade. Or, at least for the texting ban being considered by congress. In banning handheld cell phone use, Ford figures more drivers will be convinced to buy SYNC-equipped cars. But as the momentum builds around a larger conception of what distracted driving really is, Ford’s finding out that jumping on hysteria-driven political bandwagons can have downsides.
Another crucial corporate ally in the campaign to end distracted driving is the cell phone industry. With a texting ban in the works, cell phone firms see their products being scapegoated for a wide variety of issues, and they’re fighting back to define distracted driving as more than just texting while driving. And they have some solid points. NHTSA data shows that cell phone use while driving is as dangerous as drunk driving… whether a hands-free device is in use or not. More importantly for the cell phone firms, the 6,000 distracted-driving deaths in 2008 include incidents of makeup application, eating and other non-cell phone distractions.
Ford’s response is that distractions have always existed for drivers. “Drivers experience many different types of distractions on a daily basis,” says Ford VP Sue Cischke. “Drivers are going to have conversations, read maps and directions, and listen to music while they drive. The most complete and most recent research shows that activity that draws drivers’ eyes away from the road for an extended period while driving, such as text messaging, substantially increases the risk of accidents.” As common-sense as the argument is, Ford is walking a dangerous line by going against the summit’s goal of defining distracted driving up to include activities which killed family members of those who testified yesterday.
And yet Ford has no choice but to oppose a broad interpretation. Not only is SYNC is crucial to sales of certain Ford models, but GPS navigation, bluetooth connectivity and a host of other distractions have become key profit-boosting options for every automaker. If the summit gets too carried away by the testimony of victims and announces a broad definition of distracted driving, the industry could be facing a major setback. GM’s OnStar would hardly be given an exception, nor would the dispatch computers used by truckers.
Political bandwagons motivated by emotional appeals by victims run on moral clarity. It took an unequivocal message, “Speed Kills,” for the UK to enact its speed camera laws. The oil crisis presented a stark justification for America’s infamous federal 55 mph speed limit. The competing corporate interests around the issue of distracted driving draw myriad dividing lines between the summit’s attendees, injecting murky questions of science and morality into what was surely imagined as a coalition-building conference.
But the lack of a definition of distracted driving is merely the first hurdle to Secretary LaHood’s windmill-tilting expedition. Enforcement is another tough challenge that will doubtless divide the distracted driving coalition even further. Unless the feds fancy giving the FBI responsibility for hunting down distracted drivers, they will rely on state and local law enforcement to carry out whatever ban emerges from this writhing confusion. But the feds won’t be paying local law enforcement any additional money to take on this new responsiblity, making it a classic unfunded mandate. The enforcement method already proposed for the texting ban is the same method used for the double nickel: either states pass laws enforcing the federal ban, or the feds will cut highway funds allocated to non-compliant states.
Enforcing distracted driving bans on the street level will be no easy task. If state troopers and county sheriffs are blackmailed into enforcement by state governments who don’t want their highway money revoked by the feds, you can probably imagine what will ensue. Like federal drug law mandates in many jurisdictions, distracted driving enforcement will be given a low priority at the local level. And even if the law is enforced, prosecuting someone for distracted driving will be even more difficult, absent Patriot Act-like compliance from cell phone carriers. Like the federal double nickel, a national distracted-driving law will be reviled and widely flaunted. And with vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving laws already on the books, local law enforcement already has the tools to deter and prosecute obviously distracted drivers.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the stories of families who have lost loved ones to distracted drivers will not be stopped by a broad distracted-driving law. Secretary LaHood has called these stories “heartbreaking,” and they seem to be his primary motivation for holding this week’s summit. These stories are the glue that is holding his shaky coalition together, but in the face of competing corporate interests, definition challenges and enforcement issues they are mere reminders that legislation based on emotion rarely accomplishes its goals. Had Secretary LaHood kept the issue limited to in-car texting, he might have offered a few of these families some hope that their tragedy might be less likely to visit other Americans. Instead he has set himself about a task that has no definition, no consensus and no end state in sight. Given that overall road fatalities are at 50-year lows, Secretary LaHood’s sisyphean task is all the more tragically unnecessary.
Editor’s note: Driving is a life-and-death matter. Please remember that every time you get into a car. Thank you.