Distracted Driving: A Hot Button Issue

While alternative fuel technologies remain at the forefront of automakers’ minds, arguably an even bigger focus is their obsession for adding more and more features to the inside of our vehicles. The result of this push to meet perceived consumer demand is that the concept of “distracted driving” has almost taken on new meaning.

Whether it’s adding Bluetooth connectivity, smart phone apps, voice command technology, streaming TV, real time traffic updates or local points of interest, there are so many things to take our eyes off the road some are saying it’s a wonder there aren’t more accidents on our streets and highways.

To make matters worse, the relentless march of turning the inside of a vehicle into an extension of the living room or office shows no signs of abating. In fact, the situation has gotten to the point that in 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration observed that some 3,092 road-related fatalities alone were the result of distracted driving or “multitasking” behind the wheel.

Yet while companies such as Intel continue to pour more money and development into auto-based info entertainment systems, in this case, creating a $100 million “connected car fund,” there’s increasing talk on Capitol Hill that says tech companies are putting profits ahead of vehicle occupant safety.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman has been a key advocate in the move to reduce distracted driving.

“We’ve got to dispel the myth of multitasking,” she said recently at a distracted driving forum in Washington D.C. “What is the price of our desire to be mobile and connected at the same time?”

Hersman has an ally in current U.S. Transport Secretary Ray LaHood, who’s made distracted driving a top safety priority since he was appointed to the post in 2009. However, the problem that many regulators recognize is that the pace of technology outstrips the ability to enforce laws restricting its use in vehicles, meaning agencies find themselves constantly playing catch up in an effort to curb distracted driving via legal means.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has issued guidelines, albeit voluntary ones for automakers, which require that no task take longer than two seconds and the vehicle must be stationary – with the transmission in park before driver can use navigation screens or access social media feeds.

Yet for those who see things as Hersman does, current federal programs don’t go far enough. Back in December, her board called for a complete ban of cell phone use while driving, including the use of hands free devices.

“If the technology produced focused more on what is safe, than what sells, we’d see highway fatalities go down,” she said.

A spokesperson for Intel, in response to criticism of vehicle info entertainment systems, said that “a significant area of focus for the [$100 million connected car fund] is to accelerate innovation for driver and passenger safety. For example, the fund will invest in startups developing technologies for advanced driver assistance, gesture recognition and sensors,” said Laura Anderson.

Yet, while Intel and indeed automakers such as Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz have been developing systems designed to counter distracted driving (such as active attention-getting feedback steering wheels that nudge the driver), focus group research shows that consumers, especially those in Gen Y, are looking for even greater in-car connectivity. As a result, economic pressures mean that we’re likely to see even greater emphasis on vehicle interior multitasking, at least in the near term.

Not helping matters is the fact that LaHood and his supporters are believed likely to get little support from Congress. If so, the upshot is that unless somebody finds a way to mandate attention-getting spikes in the steering wheel of every car sold in North America, the distracted driving “epidemic,” as it’s been labeled by NHTSA, is likely to remain a contentious issue for some time to come.

Further reading: Automotive News (subscription req’d), MSNBC

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  • perfectapproach

    I watched a History Channel feature on the Autobahn highway in Germany, and one of the people on the episode said it best when speaking about a Porsche with not so much as a cup-holder:

    “Driving is something you do, not something you do while you do other things.”

  • MrEnergyCzar

    I bet the accident rates are very low on that Autobahn, despite the speeds….


  • David

    Quoting: “If the technology produced focused more on what is safe, than what sells, we’d see highway fatalities go down,”

    What she fails to say: “…although highway fatalaties ARE going down and have CONTINUED on a downward spiral for years”.

    People like her who want to ban all cell phone use in a car fail to realize that, by their own logic, they must by extension ban talking to passengers – and banning passengers in a car would probably be the only way to ensure that.

    …which is another way of saying they are a zealot for a cause and can’t see the big picture.

  • rkb


    According to WHO statistics, Germany has about a third the rate of driving-related deaths per population that the US does, which means absolute risk is much less. Germany has about half the fatalities based on the relative number of vehicles, which may be more a measure of relative risk per vehicle. The two countries are about even based on fatalities per vehicle mile driven, and when this is combined with the other two measures, it seems Germans enjoy a lower risk of fatalities largely because they drive less (Germany is a much smaller country by size). Haven’t seen comparative data about cell phone use while driving, but I’d guess Germans are more attentive, and this could be a part of the pie chart, too.

    As David notes, US safety has improved, but why shouldn’t it be better? I’ll bet most cell phone conversations could wait until the car is stopped. People consider it selfish and rude (or worse) when someone’s cell phone goes off in a movie theater or at a hospital talking with your doctor, so why should it not be considered the same way in a vehicle with enough energy to kill someone?

    Some day while waiting at an intersection, look at how many drivers are yammering on their cell phones while making left turns. I’ve done this five times and the rates range from 10 to 25%. Hardly a scientific sample, but the large number of distracted, selfish drivers may be a logical and defensible reason to buy a bigger vehicle than you need (for passive safety). So … distracted driving has ecological consequences too.

  • greg45

    I am glad that you wrote this article. So many people need to be aware of this. So many people are getting in accidents because they are texting. You cannot text while you are driving it is not safe. I hope people listen to this. Software King