What We Don’t Know About Distracted Driving

DistractedDriverEvery day, about ten American die and about ten more are injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver.

Sending or receiving a text message takes your eyes off the road for an average of just less than five seconds. If you’re driving 55 mph, in 5 seconds, you will drive the length of a football field. (Yikes.)

In 2011, we sent nearly 200 billion (!) text messages, twice the number of texts we sent in 2009. But the number of deaths and injuries remained stable. That made me wonder what we know about digital devices and driver safety.

Preliminary web research uncovered dozens of articles published around 2009-2010, but not much material that was more recent. At the time, there was great concern about the most at-risk groups (mostly, 18-24), and cries for additional research, including scientific research of all sorts. And that got me to thinking.

In theory, I suppose it’s best to drive without any distraction whatsoever. In practice, commuting is often a boring routine, so we listen to the radio, or, if we’re sharing the drive, we chat with another passenger, and if we’re on a long trip, it’s always easier with at least one passenger. Are these distractions positive (keeping the driver alert, awake and interested), helpful (second pair of eyes), or negative (any distraction is a problem)? That’s probably the first question we ought to answer. Inevitably, the answer will include a large grey “it depends” zone–if the other passenger is offering light conversation, it’s not much of a distraction, but an argumentative or boring passenger might add to tension or drowsiness.

Related question: does radio listening affect driver safety? It’s difficult to imagine a long drive without a radio companion. Half of all U.S. radio listening is done in a vehicle. Sirius/XM has built a business by providing a large number of radio program services to truckers and noncommercial drivers. Some radio programs are very engaging–political programs can really raise the level of listener emotion–and it’s fun to turn the radio up loud and sing along to some dreadful 1980s pop tune. How would we measure the level of distraction associated with radio, or CDs, or recorded books? A really good book, presented by a really good actor, can captivate the imagination. On a long drive, that’s heaven. But is it safe? Is a great book with fabulous characters more dangerous than a book with a weak story?

For the moment, let’s put aside the goofy “I probably shouldn’t do this while I am driving” behaviors that include applying makeup, drinking hot coffee, pawing through a grocery bag in the back seat while driving 60 mph, turning around to tell little Timmy to stop pulling little Kimmy’s hair, and all that.

Instead, let’s turn to digital communications devices. And let’s start with the telephone.

First question: is it more dangerous to talk (not dial, not set up a conference call, but just talk) any more distracting or dangerous than talking to a passenger in the seat next to the driver?

Second question: why have manufacturers made it so difficult to talk on the phone in the car? My car has a bluetooth setup so I can talk and listen to phone calls through my car’s sound system. Great idea, but the system doesn’t work because the car manufacturer refuses to update the firmware. BlueAnt offers a portable speaker that attaches to the visor, an adequate solution that should, in this day and age, be built into every automobile. With voice-controlled dialing.

Shifting the focus to the cell phone makers, they should be taken to task for not establishing standards for voice calling, and for not establishing features that make in-car use easy and safe. Simply: every car should include a standardized port in which the place can be safely and securely placed. The port should include power and connectivity to the car’s sound system. There should be NO access to the phone’s keypad while the car is in motion. This requires a superior in-car voice dialing system, either from the phone or from the car’s digital systems. Not a giant technological challenge.

What about email and texting and web surfing and Angry Birds? Not while you’re driving. Not at all. When the car is stopped (stopped = the engine is off), sure. Otherwise, these activities should be unavailable.

Apple MapsOne gotcha: maps. A voice navigation system is helpful, but the map really needs to be available in visual form. Should the driver be looking at that map while driving? Absolutely not. Eyes on the road, please! We’ve become addicted to our GPS systems, but we need to think about this system in a more rational way. Voice systems are probably the answer, but they need to become more reliable. Printed map directions are helpful, but they should not be used while the vehicle is in motion. A heads-up display (map projected on the driver’s windshield) may be a promising solution, but we need more scientific testing to determine whether a driver can both navigate the real world and study a map simultaneously. My brain cannot do both at the same time. I cannot multitask while in motion–I need to stop the car, study the map, try to remember what the map told me, and then drive the car. Some evolution is in store: both for humans interacting with digital maps and digital maps becoming more useful to humans in motion.

What’s missing? Video, for one thing. We’ve been smart enough to keep the video player pointed toward the back seat passengers, but radio control, map navigation, and other kinda-sorta-video is making its way into the driver’s field of view. It won’t be long before on-screen navigation is sponsored, and, here and there, the driver might be exposed to a video commercial. And it’s certainly tempting for McDonald’s to play a commercial around dinner time, especially when a driver is about to pass a McD’s installation.

And what about emergencies? You’re driving 65 mph and you absolutely must call or text somebody RIGHT NOW. I’m trying to imagine a situation. There’s a drunk driver in front of you (oh, no, wait, I think she’s just texting). Your car is heading for a bridge that used to be there but is now a Wile E. Coyote cliff. Stuff happens, and sometimes, you need to make that call. One solution: save the number 9 on your autodial for 9-1-1. Seems to me, the likelihood that you will be in a situation where (a) there is an emergency that requires an in-motion call, (b) that is not the sort of thing where 9-1-1 is the call to make; (c) there is no passenger in the car to make the call; and (d) you cannot pull off the road and stop to make the call is fairly small.

So, where does that leave us? I’d like some answers and I’d like some changes. First the answers:

1. Will the US Department of Transportation please fund annual research and an annual report to the American people about distracted driving. Which distractions are most dangerous (by the numbers)? Which are less so? What are USDOT’s specific recommendations to consumers, and specific agenda items for legislative change (at the Federal or State level) to ensure our safety? If in-motion telephone use is truly unsafe, we should pass legislation and enable enforcement to prevent the use. If in-motion telephone use is safe, but the use of one or two hands to operate these phones while the car is in motion is not safe, then manufacturers should be required to offer a standard solution that always works properly.

2. Will the car manufacturers please take responsibility for reliable, flexible systems for the safe in in-motion use of telephones (not texting and other uses) in cars? I’d like to see an annual report to consumers that addresses release dates for industry-wide standards, and, subsequently, annual upgrades so that every phone works in every vehicle. Yes, we may need some legislative help on this one.

3. Will the phone manufacturers please take responsibility for reliable, flexible systems for the safe in-motion use of telephones (not texting and other uses) in cars? Once again, an annual report should be required by any manufacturer selling telephones in the US.


1. As consumers, we should fully understand the product and human safety issues related to phones in moving vehicles. We should demand real answers to these questions from our state and Federal agencies and from our lawmakers–and not just once, because cars and phones and consumer behaviors keep changing. What is and is not safe? We should know.

2. Unless we are certain, or reasonably certain, that hands-free telephone conversations are truly unsafe, more unsafe than, say, listening to the radio or talking to a passenger, both the phone makers and the car makers should be required to provide safe, reliable communications systems in moving vehicles.

3. We should establish reasonable industry review processes for a rapidly-changing digital environment.

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