Distracted driving

Distracted driving

It happens every day. For Judy and David Teater, it was January
2004. Judy Teater was driving their 12-year-old son, Joe, to be
tutored in Grand Rapids, Mich. Holly Jo Smeckert, a 20-year-old
nanny, was taking a child to dance class.
It happens every day.

For Judy and David Teater, it was January 2004. Judy Teater was driving their 12-year-old son, Joe, to be tutored in Grand Rapids, Mich. Holly Jo Smeckert, a 20-year-old nanny, was taking a child to dance class.

As Judy Teater passed through an intersection, Smeckert drove her employer’s Hummer H2 through a red light, hitting the side of the Teaters’ SUV, killing Joe. Smeckert was talking on a cellphone.

“She passed four cars and a school bus that were stopped for the red light,” Judy Teater said. “She was talking and looking straight ahead and didn’t see the cars passing in front of her.”

At any moment of the day, 11 percent of American motorists are talking on a cellphone, federal regulators say.

But while law enforcers, policymakers and regulators struggle to deal with that threat in a comprehensive and effective way – there’s still no uniform way to even report that distraction was involved in an accident – the distractions keep coming. The safety problem has spread well beyond the risks of talking on the phone or texting while driving.

Among the growing list of new distractions: on-demand horoscopes, sports scores, stock prices, weather updates, news and movie listings. You can even customize your cluster display and download applications in some vehicles while driving.

Indeed, there’s a growing telematics industry that sees billions in potential profits for keeping us entertained and connected in our vehicles.

But this relentless advance of in-vehicle technology has triggered the auto industry’s most intense safety debate since seat belts were mandated nearly 30 years ago.

Wireless technology, smartphone apps and computer operating systems for cars have opened a virtual faucet of infotainment and well-meaning features – often designed to achieve a new telematics dream of crash- and congestion-free highways where drivers can multitask while driving down the road.

Once marketed as a means for escape, the car is evolving into a cocoon of connectivity, a portable office, family room and smartphone wrapped in steel and glass.

But the urge to communicate – on top of a growing number of tasks such as mapping a destination, checking the weather forecast, locating the gas station with the cheapest prices or getting the name of that song now playing on XM radio – is colliding with the need to drive safely.

Much like the complex interaction of multiple prescription drugs, the layering of new in-car technologies is adding a new dimension of distraction.

Driver distraction is no longer limited to the safety issues surrounding talking or texting on a cellphone – although it’s still about that largely unresolved issue, too.

Most high-risk younger drivers are using hand-held smartphones with ever-greater frequency. They also tend to drive older cars that don’t enable hands-free phone use. In 2009, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reports, 26 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds said they have texted while driving, despite laws in 34 states that ban it.

“When you’re looking down at your texting device when you’re behind the wheel of a car, your car goes the length of a football field in 4 seconds and you’re not looking,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “That’s dangerous.”

Experts say it’s time to have an honest conversation about driver distraction that goes beyond smartphones and includes new in-car technologies.

“Right now the conversation around distraction is very binary. Having phones in the car are either good or bad, but that’s a false argument,” said Leo McCloskey, marketing vice president of Airbiquity, a Seattle-based company that enables drivers to download apps from smartphones to systems such as Ford’s Sync and General Motors’ OnStar. “There is no way that legislation is going to push smartphones and mobile devices outside the car,” he said. “Automakers have to figure out how to incorporate these features safely.”

In theory, voice-recognition technology is a solution – one that allows drivers to use new technologies while keeping their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

But in practice, voice recognition is a work in progress that has some rough edges. It doesn’t always recognize every word or phrase a driver speaks.

Just this month, Ford, whose latest in-car technology systems have been highly criticized, began offering access to human phone operators to users of its Sync Services business locator function.

The National Safety Council disputes that hands-free cellphone use is less distracting than speaking on a hand-held phone.

Lt. Gary Megge of the Michigan State Police agrees, saying that conversation itself, more than the phone, can be the real distraction.

“If it’s short and casual there’s little risk, but if the conversation become intense or emotional, it soaks up the driver’s attention,” Megge said.

But Jeffrey Hickman of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has analyzed the risks of various driver activities. Even though it’s counterintuitive, he said, hands-free phone use can be safer than not using a phone at all because “drivers on a hands-free tend to compensate by watching the road more carefully when they are talking.”

For now, technology is running ahead of legislation and regulation, and it’s easy to see why: The potential new revenue and profits are irresistible.

Worldwide, about 7 million new-vehicle buyers can download apps for their cars today, for which they will spend about $105 million this year, according to GigaOM Pro, a technology consulting firm.

By 2015, the base of users is expected to grow to 26.6 million who will spend $438 million on their in-car apps. The aftermarket potential – selling apps for older vehicles already on the road – could exceed $680 million globally by 2015, the GigaOM Pro study found.

The nation’s two top federal safety regulators, LaHood and National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland, have mostly used the bully pulpit to address the growing threat.

“I’m not in the business of helping people tweet better. I’m not in the business of helping people post on Facebook better,” Strickland said in June at the Telematics 2011 conference in Novi, Mich.

Thousands of firms, many of which say the car is the next electronic frontier, went to the event to peddle new in-car technologies.

But what steps should regulators be taking? Should they be deactivating cellphones, smartphones and navigation screens for the sake of safety, or should they trust automakers and other firms to make their expanding menu of infotainment safer to access.

“Not everyone agrees on what is safe and responsible,” said David Teater, who leads the National Safety Council’s transportation initiatives campaign. “As long as 100 people are dying in this country every day, the driver’s primary responsibility should be to drive the vehicle, period.”

Nicholas Ashford, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s technology and law program, said if regulators, automakers and wireless providers don’t establish some limits, legal liability eventually will.

Tort law, he noted, has a well-established concept of attractive nuisance.

“If you have a swimming pool in your backyard and you don’t put up a fence, you know that neighborhood children will wander into your yard and use your pool,” Ashford said. “If something happens to one of those children, you the homeowner will be held liable.”

Ashford said the confluence of cellphones, display screens and smartphone apps has created an attractive nuisance drawing drivers away from their primary task: driving safely.

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