Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Distracted driving puts today's motorists at risk, industry officials say

May 23, 2012 - 11:20 AM
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(Photo: flickr/oregonDOT)

Ten years ago, the idea of "distracted driving" barely made a ripple in transportation circles. Five years ago, the concept was still evolving and a nascent concern in the traffic safety world. But now in 2012, in the era of the iPhone and texting and constant engagement with our mobile devices, the issue has become the focus of two panel discussions at the 22nd annual Smart Transportation Conference held at the National Harbor, Maryland this week. Thank U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, perhaps. President Obama’s transportation chief has championed the dangers for the last several years, creating several PSAs and pushing for harsh penalties throughout the states while citing statistics that distracted driving killed 5,500 people in 2009 and hurt half a million more. Local governments typically have been receptive to the message and criminalized driving and texting as well as talking in many places around the country. You see D.C.’s own traffic safety campaigns slamming texting and driving as "brainless." But what are the real solutions?

"If we seek to ban the phone," said Leo McCloskey, vice president of marketing for telematics company Airbiquity at a Tuesday conference session, "the consumers will ignore us very, very quickly."

How do you change a driver’s behavior? That’s the task facing the transportation world today for the sake of everyone’s safety, whether passenger, bicyclist, or pedestrian. The challenge will call on regulators from federal and state government, auto makers, technology companies, and an emphasis on driver education. Recent history has created an unprecedented level of distraction for today’s travelers on the road but distraction is not entirely new — nor is it likely to be prevented until robots take the wheel.

"There was always the baby in the backseat crying," McCloskey remarked. "These things are never going away."

The history of the automobile is the history of mounting distraction. One decade, it’s windshield wipers. The next, it’s the radio. Now we have screens and games and smartphones and more and more noise. What’s changed is our lifestyles and severity of distractions. "Some of the recent things are what distracts us the most," said Steve Kenner, Ford’s global manager for automotive safety. Ford touts plenty of data points to reinforce the idea. Talking while driving, according to Kenner, will increase the risk but not that much. But if you dial with a handheld mobile device, you’re six times as likely to get into an accident or near-accident. If you have to deal with a big screen while driving, it’s 10 times as likely. If you’re texting, however, you really better watch out. Then the risk rises to 23 times as dangerous. "It seems like you could use the in-vehicle systems to do something safer," Kenner added. "We think some of the things we’re doing [at Ford Motor Company] are part of the solution."

What do industry and government officials believe may help reduce incidents of distracted driving? Ford pushes hand-free devices, operated by voice and less likely to pull a driver’s eyes from the road and traffic. Kenner also mentions the greater opportunities to counteract distraction in the name of traffic safety. The federal government has partnered with eight auto companies, including Ford, in recent years to integrate traffic safety technology that allows cars to communicate with one another and give warnings about potential collisions and whenever a driver veers out of his or her lane. Semi-autonomous driving features will become more common and perhaps curb our distracted impulses. Ford has released a tool called MyKey, which lets parents control the maximum speed at which their childrens' vehicles travel and presets other restrictions to minimize distraction (like, say, the radio volume, even) and encourage safety. Fight technology with technology.

Recent data, according to Kenner, suggests about one in 10 of the 32,788 traffic deaths of 2010 involved distracted driving and little more than one in a hundred involved a handheld device. NHTSA suggests about 3,092 deaths happened that year due to distraction (much lower than the previous year due to refined methodology). Concern over the seat belt, titan of traffic safety that it is, and drunk driving remain larger factors in the annual number of traffic deaths. Distracted driving? It's an issue — and as any of the five speakers at the conference session would emphasize, any traffic death is too many — but not the issue causing vehicles to veer recklessly.

"The practical reality, according to the 2010 data, is that it’s a small contributor," said Matt Howard, CEO and co-founder of ZoomSafer. He remains concerned about how private companies can develop the proper policies and enforcement on distracted driving.

But distraction is one of the watchwords of our Facebook-driven, Twitter-fueled age, and transportation will contend with distraction as much as any other field. None of the panelists felt that any emerging technology could end distraction, at least not until the robots, but the key will be on educating and creating ways for people to not lose sight of the road. Some technological improvements have already helped. Consider maps, for instance. Was looking through a pile of physical maps really better than hearing the voice commands of a GPS system now? Certainly not. Another panelist cited the concern that now, 20% of roads change every year though and, as Damian Woodward, vice president of sales for TomTom noted, "keeping your map fresh is imperative." Changing driver behavior is nothing new, though. We successfully demonized drunk driving starting half a century ago. The Click It or Ticket campaign has helped elevate the seat belt in the last two decades. Perhaps we need, McCloskey suggested, some "cutesy" message to stigmatize distracted driving? LaHood has begun trying. Perhaps, as one questioner asked, our speed cameras can zero in on mobile-phone users as apparently has begun happening in the United Kingdom. The panelists remained skeptical that the U.S. would accept such enforcement though.

"We’re going to have to deal with the fact that we are distracted," said Kenner.

The focus, according to Kenner, will be on "mitigating" and counteracting the problem and creating a world in which these new distracted-driving deaths are, somehow, "manageable."

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