Thursday, September 24, 2009

All Eyes on the Road?

SEPTEMBER 15, 2009, 10:56 P.M. ET
Driving While Texting: Is It the New DWI?
Here's one issue in these contentious times that almost everyone appears to agree on: Driving while typing out text messages on a mobile phone is dumb, potentially deadly and should be banned.
So let's just ban driving while texting, right? Not so fast. Nothing's ever that easy, especially when powerful economic interests and different levels of government are involved.
Later this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans to convene a "summit" on "distracted driving." The issue of driving while texting, or DWT, will be high on the agenda. For the first time, it appears that most major interest groups involved are for doing something to make DWT illegal.
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Associated Press
The wireless phone industry's main Washington lobbying arm, CTIA-The Wireless Association, once opposed bans on using mobile phones to talk or text. Now the association supports bans on texting and is officially neutral on other limits to mobile phone use. It notably didn't object when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that if it were up to him alone (which it is not), he'd institute a federal ban on DWT. CTIA is also working with the National Safety Council on a series of advertisements warning of the dangers of on-road texting.
CTIA would prefer one nationwide law on the matter, says John Walls, a spokesman for the association.
That's not quite the same position as the Governors Highway Safety Association. This influential group had also balked at the idea of banning driving while texting. Now, the GHSA says it supports state laws banning the practice, though it doesn't like proposals in Congress that would compel states to ban DWT or risk losing federal highway funds.
"States don't need to be sanctioned," says the GHSA's Jonathan Adkins. He points out that 18 states and the District of Columbia have passed anti-texting laws—about half of them within the past year. It's counterproductive to threaten states with the loss of federal funding at a time when states are supposed to be spending on road projects to save jobs, he says.
It could well turn out, at the rate state legislatures are going, that Congress will get around to enacting a federal DWT ban at about the same time that most states have already acted on their own laws.
But that won't put the issue of distracted driving to rest.
Distracted driving is a broad term that can be applied to a wide variety of behaviors. You can be distracted behind the wheel by talking on a mobile phone held in your hand, talking on a phone using an earpiece, or talking on a phone using a hands-free "telematics" system embedded in your car. You can be distracted by a messy cheeseburger or a hot cup of coffee. You can be distracted by an iPod that's not playing what you want, or a passenger, or a map or paper with directions on it. You can be distracted by a ball game on the radio, or a billboard.
Some safety advocates argue that any use of mobile communications while on the road is dangerous, and should be stopped. On their side is a body of research that suggests that the mere act of talking to someone not in the car—whether the phone's up against your head, or in a cupholder while you wear an earpiece—is a risky overload of a driver's cognitive functions.
But auto makers, and some safety researchers, are gearing up to argue to federal safety regulators—at this month's summit and beyond—that with the proper technology and under appropriate conditions, communicating from a moving vehicle is a manageable risk.
Ford Motor Co. researcher Louis Tijerina, a veteran of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says that even as mobile-phone subscriptions have surged to more than 250 million during the past decade, the death rate from accidents on the highways has fallen.
Some tests done in simulators suggested that talking on a phone, no matter how it's done, sharply elevates the risk of an accident. But so-called naturalistic studies—essentially watching people driving around in the real world—suggest that just talking, especially when hands-free, isn't as risky as the laboratory experiments indicate.
That's good news for auto makers selling onboard telematics systems, such as Ford's Sync or General Motors Co.'s Onstar, that offer the ability to dial and respond to phone calls hands-free.
Mr. Tijerina says his work, and the work of others, suggests that in the real world, "people appear by and large to be acting responsibly" when it comes to using mobile communication devices.
Texting with your fingers and thumbs, however, is clearly a problem. A recent Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study found that manual text messaging elevated the risk of a crash or near crash to more than 23 times higher than "nondistracted" driving.
What the auto and phone industries hope to get out of the government's distracted-driving summit is funding for more naturalistic research, such as a study that's gearing up to include observations of some 2,000 motorists over two years. They also hope to avoid federal action that bans all use of mobile communications on the road. Auto makers and their suppliers are working on systems that will allow drivers to send and receive text messages using voice-activated systems. They don't want those features outlawed.
In the meantime, given how hard it will be for police to enforce legislated bans, the best way to curb texting while driving probably is to make it socially unacceptable, particularly among teens.
A graphic British public-service announcement depicting teens who get into a bloody crash after the driver loses control while texting has now been tagged on Youtube as inappropriate for children under 18. It is a deeply disturbing video. Parents who choose not to expose their kids to that video should find ways to deliver the message some other way—and hope that popular figures whom kids take more seriously deliver it as well.
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About Joe White
Joe White writes Eyes on the Road every Monday for the Online Journal. His column offers readers insight into the top consumer issues in the automotive industry, ranging from car pricing to safety to the latest gadgets.
Joe is a senior editor for The Wall Street Journal, and has worked for the Journal since 1987. For most of that time, he has covered the auto industry from Detroit. In 1993, Joe and then-Detroit Bureau Chief Paul Ingrassia shared a Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting for their coverage of management turmoil at General Motors. Paul and Joe co-authored a 1994 book about the American auto industry in the 1980s and 1990s, "Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry." Joe also contributes new-car reviews to SmartMoney magazine. A graduate of Harvard University, he lives with his family outside Detroit and commutes in a 2004 Subaru WRX.
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