Distracted driving is a serious problem. When you’re flying down the road at speed maneuvering a 2-ton piece of machinery, you need to be paying attention to the road to keep yourself, and others around you, safe. Distractions of any sort can be dangerous and undercut the driver’s ability to stay focused. And it’s certainly true that digital devices can be among the biggest distractions. But I think we have to ask some practical questions about just how far law can and should go to minimize that distraction.
I raise this issue because, according to this Bloomberg article yesterday, “U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says he believes motorists are distracted by any use of mobile phones while driving, including hands-free calls, as his department begins research that may lead him to push for a ban.” Sec. LaHood believes that even hands-free phone conversations are a “cognitive distraction” and should be prohibited. Also, “his concerns extend to vehicle information and entertainment systems such as Ford Motor Co.’s Sync and General Motors Co.’s OnStar,” which means that almost every conceivable in-vehicle technology could be regulated under LaHood’s scheme.
To be clear, I’m not necessarily opposed to laws addressing talking on phones or texting while driving since those actions can have dangerous consequences. But I’ve always preferred a more generic enforcement strategy when it comes to distracted driving laws. As I noted in my old 2007 essay, “Banning In-Car Technologies Won’t Work,” to the extent law enforcement needs to be brought into the picture it should be done in a technology-agnostic or activity-agnostic fashion. I went on to argue:
Instead of trying to ban technologies (cell phones, radios, MP3 players, navigation devices, etc.) or specific activities (conversations, singing, smoking, etc.) inside the cabin of an automobile, police officers should simply enforce those laws already on the books dealing with reckless or negligent driving. If a driver is weaving in and out of traffic lanes, or posing a serious threat to others on the road for any reason, they should be pulled over and probably ticketed if the infraction is serious enough. For starters, I’d like to see some of those stupid idiots I see eating while driving, or worse yet, putting on make-up behind the wheel, pulled over and ticketed when they are driving erratically. But the same goes for anyone who is operating a vehicle in a dangerous fashion. Again, enforce basic traffic safety rules and focus on educating drivers about vehicle safety. Don’t ban new technologies.
That’s still where I stand on this issue. Moreover, I keep coming back to the practicality of the sort of sweeping technology bans that Sec. LaHood and others advocate. I just don’t think it’s possible to eliminate all these devices and activities from cars, at least not with creating an Auto Police State, and a huge headache for law enforcement officers to boot. Even if you banned integration at the factory of in-vehicle technologies, plenty of people would find after-market alternatives. And you just can’t stop people from lugging their digital devices around with them wherever they go.
Thus, to reiterate, the better solution here is to:
- Continue to make those technologies more road-friendly by integrating in more safety features. As I noted in this CNBC interview earlier this year, Ford’s new systems, for example, have some very impressive voice-activated features. And others are following suit.
- Educate drivers about safer vehicle operation & proper technology use. For more on that, see Berin Szoka’s excellent post, “Texting While Driving: Regulate or Empower & Educate?”
- Apply stiffer fines to erratic driving infractions. Again, if a driver is posing a threat others on the road for any reason, they should be penalized for that behavior.
I want to raise a final proposal. If Sec. LaHood and others are serious about minimizing distracting in-vehicle conversations, then I would ask them to find to a solution to the greatest threat to driver safety: nagging spouses and poorly-behaved children! Seriously, there is no greater “cognitive distraction” to a driver than family fights and bad kids.