By on January 31, 2011

Poor Ray LaHood. Having endured considerable embarrassment over his department’s handling of the Toyota Unintended Acceleration recall, all the Secretary of Transportation seems to want to do is talk about the “epidemic” of distracted driving. But, as TTAC has continually reminded, changing driver behaviors is a notoriously tricky task. The government’s choice: mandate intrusive measures like in-car cell phone blocking or continual surveillance of all vehicles, or go for voluntary “cures” that don’t even begin to address the underlying problem of increased driver distraction. And despite repeatedly referring to distracted driving in epidemiological terms, LaHood seems to prefer the “it’s actually your problem” approach, telling automakers [via AN [sub]]that NHTSA will

issue voluntary standards to handle the dangers of the connected car… in the third quarter of 2011.

Which means that nothing meaningful will ever actually be done about distracted driving. After all, the automakers contend that drivers will use cell phones in cars “no matter what,” and that in-car connectivity systems simply make the inevitable sin less dangerous. Of course, the evidence doesn’t seem to back up that position, as an IIHS survey shows no significant difference in safety after a hands-free cell phone ban. But, because the industry is under intense pressure to deliver profits from new connectivity systems, the logic that more systems will make drivers more likely to unsafely use phones in their cars is simply being ignored. And though the voluntary approach is better than intrusive government-mandated workarounds, is still nowhere close to living up to LaHood’s overblown rhetoric.

Automotive News [sub] offers the following taste of already in-place measures from automakers aimed at reducing distracted driving (or, at least making money).

‘I’m driving right now’

Who: OnStar

What: OnStar is testing an application to bring Facebook into the car. Facebook and standard text messages are received by a driver’s smart phone and relayed wirelessly to the car and its speakers. Before getting behind the wheel, a driver can set his smart phone to block messages and send a message to senders: “I am driving right now and cannot reply.”

How it limits distraction: Drivers are unaware of incoming messages, which are stored.

Listen to Facebook posts

Who: Harman International

What: Stereo maker Harman is pitching to automakers Aha Radio, which beams Internet signals from a driver’s cell phone to a car’s center console. The system reads Facebook messages to drivers with text-to-speech technology.

How it limits distraction: Drivers hear messages and don’t use hands and eyes to operate their Internet-connected smart phones.

Use the center console

Who: Continental AG, Nokia Corp.

What: Internet applications, such as navigation and Internet radio, are received on a smart phone and beamed wirelessly to the center console or a screen in front of the passenger. Continental says it is discussing the technology with potential customers.

How it limits distraction: Drivers can, for example, switch radio stations on the center console easier than on a smart phone.

Disable the cell phone

Who: T-Mobile USA

What: For $4.99 a month, cell phone company

T-Mobile disables most texting and calling features to certain cell phones in a moving car.

How it limits distraction: No text or call, no distraction.

Hands off that cell phone

Who: Ford Motor Co.

What: Sync, Ford’s infotainment system, reads text messages out loud to drivers. The texts are received by cell phones and relayed to Sync.

How it limits distraction: Hearing a text message is safer than using eyes and hands to operate a cell phone while driving.

Listen to texts later

Who: Ford Motor Co.

What: By pushing a “Do not disturb” button on four vehicles, drivers send incoming cell calls to voicemail and texts to storage. The feature is available on the 2011 Ford Edge, Lincoln MKX and Ford Explorer and the 2012 Focus with Sync and MyFord Touch or MyLincoln Touch.

How it limits distraction: The driver is not interrupted. The voicemails can be heard and texts can be read later.

Pull over to browse the Web

Who: Toyota Motor Corp.

What: Toyota prevents drivers from using some Internet features that are too distracting. For example, with the Entune application, drivers can conduct only Internet searches relevant to driving, such as for gasoline stations. Other searches must be conducted when the car is parked.

How it limits distraction: Searching while parked is safe.

Eyes straight ahead

Who: Denso International

What: A head-up system displays information in front of the driver on the windshield. An undisclosed automaker will introduce Denso’s system in North America.

How it limits distraction: The motorist won’t have to glance down at a console or a cell phone. Eyes remain on the road.

Less strain on the brain

Who: Toyota Motor Corp.

What: Drivers use natural speech, such as “Find local gasoline stations,” to conduct Internet searches. They don’t need to memorize a tree of voice commands, such as “retail” and “gasoline stations.” The searches are conducted by a smart phone wirelessly connected to the car’s center console with an application called Entune, which will be available first on the Toyota Prius V this summer.

How it limits distraction: Natural speech reduces mental strain, allowing drivers to concentrate on the road.

Notice that the only actual non-voluntary, actually effective method for keeping drivers off their cell phones comes not from an OEM or auomotive supplier… but Nokia, a cell phone company. Everyone else in the industry has a major incentive in selling in-car cell phone solutions that make it easier to use phones while driving, rather than sending the message that in-car phone use is fundamentally dangerous… at least until the personal-injury lawsuits against automakers offering in-car connectivity systems start. Only then will we see automakers moving in line with the rhetoric that Ray LaHood can’t seem to live up to.

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19 Comments on “Ray LaHood’s Opt-In War On Distracted Driving...”


  • avatar
    Philosophil

    Distracted driving in-itself is not new. Fumbling for a radio channel or a heater fan can be distracting. It’s the increased number of distractions in new cars as well as the extensiveness with which they are used (i.e., how frequently they come into play, how long the distraction lasts, and so on) that is new. It really is a new problem and a potentially serious one as well that is a direct function, for the most part, of the rapid proliferation of and reliance upon the new ‘information’ technologies.
     
    Increased driver awareness of the problem as a problem would be a helpful step, but that would take a lot of time and money to implement (and even then it’s not clear how effective it would be). Strict regulation is a possibility, but then you have the problem of enforcement combined with the fact that people seem to have very quickly become incredibly dependent upon these new information technologies, to the point where they may well either ignore or find ways to subvert the regulations.
     
    It’s a tough problem, and I know that I for one tend to look more carefully when approaching intersections, and I look in the rear view mirror a lot more than I used to at stop signs and red lights just to make sure that the person behind me is actually watching the road.

  • avatar
    CHINO 52405

    Good read. Very comprehensive look at what is currently on the market.
    IMO – distracted driving has always existed be it makeup application, eating or using the radio. I do not in any way want a company or the gov’t telling me when and how I use technology. I think the real problem here that no one wants to address is the ridiculously easy “bar” we have set for gaining driving a drivers license in the first place. Mandate advanced car control training and make sure that drivers who are at fault in accidents see greater ramifications for their actions in the form of stiffer penalties and a greater financial burden (looking at you no-fault insurance states). Otherwise, we’ll always be playing catch-up to the latest distraction until the point where we’re no longer able to drive because it has been mandated that our cars drive us instead.

  • avatar
    zigpenguin

    I’d be down with a system that detects my phone when I get in the car and sets it to “I’m driving right now, please leave a message” auto-voicemail (ha!) when the engine is on. You can easily have it only apply to the driver’s phone. Of course, this is geared just to my own preferences. I don’t want any calls when I’m driving. As it is, my phone will just ring and the person on the other end won’t know that I’m driving.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    This is absolutely the right way to handle this.  Since the genie is not going back in the bottle, distracted drivers are always going to be distracted and technology is always improving, why not “wage the war” with better technology.
     
    Legislating the problem with fines won’t fix it: we see this with chronic drunk drivers—you’d need a lot of enforcement, and you’d need to take steps (taking away people’s car) that North Americans aren’t ready for.  Driver training won’t fix it: we know that trying to teach “don’t be distracted” or “how to act in an emergency” is like “how to have effective people skills”—you can’t teach an intuitive skill.
     
    We do know, though, that improving technology has done wonders for all sorts of safety concerns: ESC for rollover and skid, ABS for control in extremis, airbags, tire-pressure monitors and so forth.  We’re probably a few years from systems like Volvo’s BLIS or Pedestrian Auto-Brake and/or Mercedes’ PreSafe making it into mass-market cars.  This is where government can do some good: setting legislative goals that push and incentivize these technologies to hurry their adoption and development.  It would be a good thing, I think, if some leadership was taken in setting standards for interoperability, human-interface design and ergonomics (eg, mandatory HUDs, voice-control systems that don’t totally suck) that cut distraction, and implementation of pre-safe technology to reduce the harm of an accident when it does happen.
     
    The problem, though, is the same faced by safe-injection sites.  An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure, but there’s a visceral, populist appeal to ten pounds of punishment.  If “The War on Drugs” tells us nothing, it’s that punitive measure aren’t going to work.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    The only real answer to the problem will be to make drivers responsible for their actions while driving by allowing police to search phone/communication records without a warrant for any driver/car involved in an accident. Any activity within 10 seconds of the accident is an automatic moving violation and can be submitted in criminal/civil cases. Once a couple of well publicized, high profile cases of driver inattention result in jail time, and insurance companies limit their liability if the driver is behaving badly, drivers will start to consider voluntarily limiting their distractions.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, let’s give the state more power. That’s the ticket.
      Me getting a driver’s license doesn’t give the police any right to violate my 4th Amendment rights. What happens on my cell phone is between me and my cell phone company and whomever I call. If there’s a criminal investigation let them convince a judge that there’s probable cause for a warrant and let them serve it on your cell phone service provider. Otherwise, hands off, or should I say, “hands free” of my property.
      Being distracted talking on the phone is legally indistinguishable from being distracted talking to your kid in the back seat.
      If an insurance company wants access to the sensors and gizmos on your car, well that’s theoretically a voluntary contract. If, through the process of legal discovery they find that you were sexting someone while you plowed into a school bus, them’s the breaks, but that’s a far cry from letting the cops look at my cell phone without a warrant.
      For the police to have warrantless access to my property and my records is a violation of my rights as an American.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      I would only sanction access to phone records in the event of an accident, and at that, only the existence of a call, not the contents of that call. And, yes, many things distract a driver, but phones carry an unimpeachable record of what the driver was choosing to do in close proximity to an accident, unlike talking to passengers, eating, etc. I rarely choose to answer a call when driving, and will pull off the road if I intend to do more than acknowledge the call. Drivers make choices about activities to perform in addition to driving. All I want is for them to take responsibility for those choices. If drivers know that a well paid attorney can’t hide those choices from the courts, perhaps they would be more thoughtful about the choices they make.

  • avatar
    redmondjp

    Look, putting a bright, glowing computer screen in the center of the dashboard and then telling the driver to ignore it is just plain stupid, and now we have to design even more complicated software and hardware “fixes” for a problem that didn’t even exist up until recently.

    Even more stupid is requiring said driver to have to use the same screen in order to change the audio source or to switch from defrost to heat.

    Automotive dash controls used to be designed so simply that one could easily do these functions without taking one’s eyes off of the road and without major distraction.  Anybody remember the KISS rule?

    And back on-topic:  the simplest solution of all (which of course nobody including myself will actually do):  turn off the gash-darn phone while driving!  Or at least put it on silent and leave it in one’s purse or pocket.  But oh shoot, now the phone IS built into the car, NOW what??? (see above)

    /rant off

  • avatar
    jkross22

    LaHood is a media whore.  He’ll say whatever he needs to say to get more camera time, regardless of how boneheaded the idea is.

  • avatar

    I don’t understand how using a hands free device while behind the wheel is any more distracting than talking to a passenger or listening to the radio.
    Unless I see some scientific data that says otherwise, I’ll object to the nannies like LaHood who, by the way, hasn’t driven anyplace in a long time. He’s had government drivers since he’s been a governor.
    Yes, it is true that you shouldn’t text behind the wheel.
    However, having grown up with AAA Triptiks and folding maps, I think it’s silly to say that a modern nav system is potentially more distracting. Will LaHood outlaw the sale of maps in Interstate service plazas?
    I fear that if LaHood manages to eliminate all the “distractions”, we’ll have accidents caused by boredom behind the wheel.

    • 0 avatar
      Jimal

      I don’t see where it is either, as long as I can operate my hands free device truly hands free.
       
      I’m also okay with voluntary standards. They are much less nannying than mandates.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      “I don’t understand how using a hands free device while behind the wheel is any more distracting than talking to a passenger or listening to the radio.”

      Studies show that the difference is that a passenger in the car knows when to shut up and leave the driver alone (young children excepted). Someone on the other end of the phone call has no sense of how much attention the driver needs to be giving to driving at a given moment. And most of us can mentally tune out the one way communication of the radio when circumstances require it.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m skeptical whenever anyone says “studies show” without an actual citation.
      It makes no sense to say that people are more capable of tuning out a radio than someone on the phone. Attention is attention.
      You see, I thought that I was the one who controlled to what I attend to and what I ignore. Apparently your “studies” say that a disembodied voice on the telephone has greater purchase on my attention than a real live person sitting next to me. Yeah, I get it, Taylor Swift is in the seat next to me telling me how she really has a thing for old fat balding guys, but I’m going to ignore her because some telemarketer is trying to sell me Ginsu knives on my cell phone. And those Ginsu knives are so, so interesting, that I’m going to ignore both Taylor and the traffic and end up plowing into the ICC bar on a semi.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      “I’m skeptical whenever anyone says “studies show” without an actual citation.”

      How about these then:
      Distraction from cell phone use while driving (hand held or hands free) extends a driver’s reaction as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. (University of Utah)

      The No. 1 source of driver inattention is use of a wireless device. (Virginia Tech/NHTSA)

      Drivers that use cell phones are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. (NHTSA, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

      Driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent  (Carnegie Mellon)

      http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95702512
      http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/56407/title/Cell_phone_distraction_while_driving_is_a_two-way_street

      Yes, you have control over what you pay attention to, but when someone not in the car talks, your brain tries to do 2 things simultaneously by time splitting (and does neither as well as it could if focusing on one or the other). The difference is that someone in the car can see what is going on in traffic at the moment, and knows that the driver needs to focus on the upcoming traffic light and not what to pick up on the way home. And hopefully shuts up, or even says something about the light up ahead. Since the disembodied voices from the radio don’t expect you to answer (and won’t get mad at you for not paying attention), you can easily tune them out whenever necessary. But, please, cite me a study that says talking on a cell phone doesn’t diminish driving abilty the way you you intuitively feel that it can’t.

    • 0 avatar

      You’re asking me to prove a negative.
      None of your citations use a passenger talking to you as a test condition.
      You want to believe that cell phones are boogeymen, go right ahead but there’s something about roads with signs that point to “Good Intentions”.

  • avatar
    Syke

    While it won’t put an end to distracted driving (nothing will) there’s a very simple method to minimize it.
     
    Do away with automatic transmissions.  Manuals only.  And crush all the current cars with automatics.  It’s a lot harder to text when you’re actually having to pay attention to your driving, or risk a stall (at least) in traffic.

  • avatar
    anchke

    It’s funny what yr kids remember about you. My daughter remembers getting her driver’s license and especially how I  disabled the stereo in her car with the promise I’d hook it up in two months IF she got no tickets and no wrecks. Now she laughs about it. Then she didn’t think it was so damn funny.  But now I see young drivers on the cellie, texting etc, and they’re overconfident and inattentive drivers to begin with.  The adults are only marginally better, possibly because most adults don’t like/want to gab on the steenkin phone. If you need to talk on the phone, pull over.


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