By on October 1, 2009

I would say I've bit off about this much more than I can chew...  (

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.

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22 Comments on “Editorial: Distracted Driving Ban Faces Distractions...”

  • avatar

    You are taking at face value their assertions that this is about saving lives. I don’t believe that. It is consistent with every other action of this administration (and most of the ones preceding it). Steadily and inexorably increase the federal government’s control over every aspect of life.

  • avatar

    OK, assuming (one heck of a big word to begin with – I’m not absolutely convinced) cell phone conversations and texting is such a massive problem, wouldn’t it be simple to mandatorially install a cell phone frequency jamming device with a ten foot transmitting radius under the hood? Have it set to come on whenever the engine is running. You need to make an emergency call, you just pull over and shut off the engine. And you’re car doesn’t pass state inspection unless one is retrofitted.

    Drivers have always had distractions, be it the classic mother-in-law in the back seat to switching the radio between stations or setting the heater to a level that keeps everyone in the car happy. Modern electronic communication has upped the distraction factor tenfold.

    So now we’ve got to decide between what is a ‘dangerous’ distraction, and what is an ‘acceptable’ distraction.

    Oh joy.

  • avatar

    The jammer would also jam calls made by passengers. Or are those now verboten as well? A 10 foot radius would also affect calls being made by pedestrians, patrons of sidewalk cafes, and perhaps those in roadside businesses.

    In any case I suspect that the jammer would be easily disabled. Thus creating a new class of criminals.

    But anything is OK if it saves lives, correct?

  • avatar

    Perhaps we should all go back to Brass Era cars with hand crank starters, open tops, on-dash ignition control, and 30 MPH top speeds. No radio. No phone. No sat nav. No back seat for annoying mother-in-laws! That’ll keep us safe!

    BTW: there’s a typo on the date (20008) in the story.


  • avatar

    The problem with this stuff is that we’re using the law – a brute force instrument – to try to drive behaviors that people shouldn’t do in the first place.

    The major victory in the fight against drunk driving wasn’t locking up some people for it. It wasn’t tougher penalties. It was getting people to understand that it is the wrong thing to do. It was getting people to understand “no, when you’re tipsy you’re NOT ok to drive, and you need to plan for that ahead of time.”

    The same applies to seatbelts. Laws don’t make people buckle up. They just give the cops a ‘gotcha’ to pile on the fines. People use seatbelts because they finally got it drilled into their skulls that “this is the safe thing to do, and I’m an idiot if I don’t.”

    The same kind of thing needs to be done with ‘distracted driving.’ People need to realize that head down in their cell phone is NOT safe. That programming their GPS is not a safe thing to do. That turning around to yell at the kids in the back seat is not a safe thing to do. Sure, you can get away with it most of the time. But when you don’t, you don’t, and the consequences range from bad to catastrophic.

    A law won’t stop people from doing it. It just makes them pay a fine when they’re caught. What is needed is for people to realize that it’s *not safe* and that the main person it’s not safe for is them.

  • avatar

    FCC states that using a cell phone jammer is not allowed – USA obviously.

  • avatar

    I suspect that tackling the distracted driver problem would yield far greater advances in auto safety than new roof crush standards or more elaborate airbags or any of the marginal improvements to the hardware that always seem to be on the radar at NHTSA.

    This could possibly be the best bang for the buck out there in automotive safety at the moment.

  • avatar

    As of today, my adopted state of Arkansas joins the ranks of those that have outlawed texting-while-driving.

    It is definitely a hazard, but as TonUpBoi pointed out, hardly a new one. Car radios were illegal in some states during the 1930s.

  • avatar

    So if we are focusing on an NHTSA-type solution — require a chime that sounds if the driver removes one hand from the wheel for more than, say, 10 seconds. This should allow time for minor activities such as radio tuning, etc. I wouldn’t think this would present much of a technological challenge.

  • avatar

    I don’t listen to Rush, but this must have been classic. His recollection:

    Shortly after the clearance on WLS, I was just playing around, horsing around here. I’d found a word in the dictionary that I found fascinating, and after I looked up this word, I said, “You know what we’ve found, ladies and gentlemen?” They were worried about high safety back then, something had happened, and highway safety was a problem, and I said, “One of the things we can do to really clean up highway safety is to get women to stop farding in their cars. If you get that stopped, we’ll be safer. You can see it every time it happens. If you get that stopped, get women to stop farding in their cars, then they’ll be paying attention to driving, and it will be a lot safer out on the roads.”

    Well, all these people started calling. “I can’t believe what you’re saying!”

    “What am I saying? What are you talking about?”

    “Well, how do you know that somebody is doing what you said when they’re driving?”

    “Because you can see it! And I’ll tell you something else: Men don’t do it. You will not see men farding in their cars when they’re driving,” and this went on and on.

    Farding = French origin – applying makeup…

  • avatar
    buzz phillips

    It looks like all “cash for clunkers” did was pull business ahead from future months. Stupid politicians, poor tax payers!

  • avatar

    Yet again the hysterical bandwagon rolls ever forward.
    Yes driving distracted is bad, but hang on a minute, somebody forgot to mention that travelling along a road at 60mph in a 2 ton metal box is inherently dangerous and is something that humans are not evolved to do.
    Anyway here are some of my suggestions of things that could be banned.
    SNEEZING! I’ve moved across 3 lanes on a motorway in the middle of a sneezing fit before. BUNG YOUR NOSE!
    BLINKING! How about it? Think about how many times you blink in a couple of hours of driving – that’s whole minutes lost! STAY FOCUSED!
    LONG HAIR! Imagine what would happen in a convertable when someone with long hair is driving? It might get in their eyes! CUT IT OFF!
    CHILDREN! They are noisey, demanding and annoying. LOCK THEM IN THE TRUNK!

  • avatar

    As noted by others, the key to changing behavior is to get the message thru that distracted driving (DD) is socially unacceptable, as is happening for drunk driving. It’s been a long slog, but we’re getting there. A big part of what makes things socially unacceptable is criminalization accompanied by serious penalties. If the act (texting while driving) isn’t a crime, you can only charge offenders who cause serious harm with generic crimes, like failure to use due caution. I would expect enforcement of a DD law to happen only after a mishap, since proving the offense will be difficult (you can’t really have DD cameras, now, can you?). Charges of DD would likely be limited to those things that could be readily proven. Phone records can show whether a driver was actively using the phone. Cup holders and mascara brushes do not maintain such records.

  • avatar

    You can’t fight fools by law. Fools are ingenious.
    BTW, how did they break their necks before the invention of cell phones?
    Do we need a ban of picking your nose while driving? No heartbreaking stories on this topic?
    “Driving is a life-and-death matter”, indeed. Everyone who is not aware of this fact and drives accordingly is a danger. No speed limits, no anti-nose-picking laws can help.

  • avatar

    @Sinistermisterman: Actually, your suggestion regarding children is a very good one. I wish it was used more often.

    @jjonelis: Looked up your reference regarding jammers. Now, I remember reading (WSJ?) a couple months ago about a church that installed one in the sanctuary due to the constant litany of incoming calls disturbing Sunday mass. Don’t remember reading anything regarding illegality in that one. And if it is illegal, some safety-crazed congressman (or more likely, some congressman facing losing his seat and needing something safe to make him look necessary) can certain start the legislation rolling.

    OK, I’m old, or at least getting there. I can remember the last 40+ years of driving without overly panicking about unobservant idiots. And this includes daily commuting in a combination of bicycles, 150cc scooters, motorcycles, and a car that has nothing more than passive seat belts and a 5-second chime when you turn on the key to remind you to use them. I’m obviously not spending my life worrying about being safe – I just use what I’ve learned in the previous 59 years to stay that way.

  • avatar

    CHILDREN! They are noisey, demanding and annoying. LOCK THEM IN THE TRUNK!

    The greatest step forward in automotive safety since the seat belt.

  • avatar

    80% percent of all rear end collisions (the most frequent vehicle accident) are caused by driver inattention, following too closely, external distraction (talking on cell phones, shaving, applying makeup, fiddling with the radio or CD player, kids, texting, etc.) and poor judgement. Since there is not much one can do to prevent a rear end collision I went out and got one of these

  • avatar


    Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for banning distracted driving – but imagine if someone needs to dial 911 from their car but can’t due to a jammer. I don’t think that regulating cell phone use in a car will do any good either – there are laws that say we must use turn signals when changing lanes/turning and yet less than half of drivers can even accomplish that feat.

  • avatar
    Kevin Kluttz

    I was minorly rear-ended by a distracted, though literally crazy, driver last night (Oct.1). She had a dog on her lap, no headlights on, and apparently was trying to clean up a drinking or drug habit. The guy who was with her claimed he didn’t know her and was hanging out with her. I think she is still a crack whore. Luckily, I only have a very slightly sore neck. 1992 Corollas have well-functioning headrests, at least in a 5 to 8 mph crash. No major damage was done, because the snout of her POS (Cavalier) submarined slightly which made everything about the crash less serious. Damn, I was stopped at a stop sign, for Christ’s sake, minding my own damned business. Crazy folks out there.

  • avatar

    @krystalkid – assuming you’re not a spambot, what about those of us who don’t have trailer hitches?

    As disappointed as I am to see anyone talking on a handset, texting, eating an orange, applying makeup, etc., while driving, I really dislike the government stepping in to stop any of it. Some non-profit needs to run some commercials shaming these morons into driving correctly. Hey, just because it’s never ever worked before is no reason to stop trying.

    Oh, and another thing we could do to reduce rear-end collisions is to stop idiots from driving with one arm draped on the top of the wheel, and the other holding their distraction du jour. Keeping two hands on the wheel as much as possible only increases your chances of avoiding sudden obstacles.

  • avatar

    @Sinistermisterman: I’ve witnessed crashes caused by immature teenagers that were texting at the time. (One even had enough of an attitude to get pushy with a cop, blatantly stating that he “knows his rights” and that he wasn’t distracted at all. His parents were sued out of house and home, if I recall correctly.) Adults are generally smarter than the average teenager in this regard – they leave their phone off while in their car. But I still agree with your suggestion of locking the kids in the trunk.

    @TonUpBoi: The use of cell phone jammers is not necessarily illegal. However, restricting one’s access to 911 is a major bust with the FCC. (This is why even disconnected landlines must, by law, have a “soft” dial tone that allows calls only to 911.) Several lawsuits have been filed against theater owners, among others, that are based around the fact that a person in need of immediate medical attention could not call 911 over their cell phone due to a jammer.

    @jjonelis: Have you ever heard of someone involved in an accident because someone forgot to turn on their turn signal?

    In reality, cops have better things to do than drive around pulling people over for failure to use their turn signal (something that would probably net the county no more than a few bucks). I’ve pulled over numerous jabbermouths chatting away on cell phones. Why? Because their driving is that of a DUI suspect – I’ve actually been surprised numerous times to learn that the driver was not intoxicated at all but was simply on the phone. I’ve actually had to ask someone to put the phone away when I walked up to the vehicle. Twice. Last month alone.

  • avatar

    I recently came across a blog post in consumer reports about a new free mobile phone application to help combat distracted driving called that reads your texts and emails to you while you are driving.

    It looked pretty interesting so I tried it. I have a BlackBerry and it has really helped me when I’m on the road because it keeps me from texting while driving. It works through my Bluetooth and it can actually send an auto-response to the sender. I’ve had some fun with customizing the auto-response messages. I’m not that technical but it’s easy to use. I recommend people checking out

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