Cutting down on distracted driving

One of the biggest puzzles is how some drivers do not seem to realize when they are behind the wheel of a vehicle weighing several tons, they can cause mayhem on a large scale. Unfortunately, it is mainly those who deliberately want to do so that realize the potential that a motor vehicle has as a lethal weapon. An error or loss of concentration can result in the deaths of innocent people. This is why the use of cell phones while driving has become such a menace. That people actually read things on their phone and send and receive text messages while driving is something I find utterly incomprehensible and so I am glad that more and more states are passing laws that issue stiff penalties for doing so.

Even conservative states like Georgia, where regulations by the government are seen as infringements of individual freedom, are cracking down.

As regulators, technology companies and even the most conscientious road warriors struggle with the universal urge to tap out a text or tally “likes” in slow-moving traffic, state and local policymakers are finally homing in on a strategy that works: deep and nuanced legislation, robust publicity campaigns and steep penalties-topped off with a hefty dose of grief for those already lost.

In Georgia, as with much of the U.S., traffic fatalities have spiked in recent years. Representative John Carson, who sponsored the Georgia legislation, whipped up enough votes with some simple math. Reducing the state’s traffic fatalities by 20 percent would save 260 lives a year, the Republican reasoned. “That’s a high-school class,” Carson said before a critical vote in March.

When Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, also a Republican, finally signed the bill into law July 1, he broke down and took a moment to gather himself. “This legislation is Georgia’s way of saying today is the day that we say ‘no more.'”

It should be borne in mind that while any use of smartphones that require the use of hands or removing one’s eyes from the road is obviously bad and should not be allowed, studies suggest that even the use of hands-free devices, now a standard feature in new cars, is a cause of distraction. But it looks like the banning of all phone use by drivers will be a hard sell, given how addicted we are to phones.

It used to be the case that a car phone was a status symbol enjoyed by the very wealthy or the very self-important. That is no longer the case obviously but I wonder if there is still a lingering sense that one is important enough that one must always be in contact with others.

When you think about it, it is hardly ever the case that a phone call or text message is really urgent. It can easily roll over to voicemail. I happen to be someone who enjoys driving without the distraction of the phone. If I am expecting an urgent call and the phone rings, it is no trouble at all to pull over to the side and talk. It adds hardly any time to the trip.


  1. says

    Part of the problem is that everyone thinks they’re very good drivers and that they can still keep an eye safely on the road while paying attention to their phones.

  2. DonDueed says

    I wonder if technology could solve the problem? Many cars these days allow the phone to link up to the car’s entertainment system. That link is used to allow hands-free calls and texts.

    But if the link is bidirectional, it could be taken further. The car could instruct the phone to reject incoming calls and texts, and prevent outbound messages as well, unless the car is stopped. A notification could be given to the driver that a text or voicemail has come in so the driver could pull over safely to accept it (if desired).

    Of course, there would still be ways to cheat the system (by not allowing the phone to connect to the car), and there are possible issues with passengers (who would still want to be able to use their phones). But the problem is a serious one and any step in the right direction would help.

  3. Nomad says

    Beware that “traffic fatalities have spiked in recent years” claim. It shares much in common with Trump’s “American Carnage” message of sky high violent crime. Between 2009 and 2014 they were fairly steady, and then after 2014 they went up a bit and are approaching the level they had been before dropping to that level.

    What, did cell phones exist until 2007, when fatalities started dropping, and then temporarily stop being used by people until 2014 when they started using them again? We’re looking at a complex pattern and are imposing neat, tidy, black and white solutions on it.

    I’m convinced this focus on cell phones is misplaced. The only reason we’re doing it is the weird love/hate thing we’ve got with cell phones, the same messed up dynamic that made it oh so trendy to complain about people talking on cell phone headsets. We’re primed to hate and blame cell phones at any time. Oh sure, I understand that it seems reasonable. They distract the driver, you’re probably saying. To do anything on it the driver has to take their eyes off the road. But have you driven a newer model car lately? Cell phones aren’t the only touch screen based interface in a car anymore.

    It used to be the case that I could operate the climate control system in my car without taking my eyes off the road. I had a simple series of switches and buttons that I could use with only a momentary glimpse to orient my hands. Now? Well my current car has a more complex series of buttons and mode switches that require more time looking at the screen to operate (no touch screens in my car, it’s still too old for that). In other cars it’s worse still, buried in layers of touch screen menus. But all of that is legal. The Tesla Model 3 doesn’t even have a normal speedometer, you have to look at a big center mounted touch screen to so much as see your speed. But the car is the darling of the automotive safety world because it has good crash test numbers.

    Instead it’s cell phones we focus on. I looked up the law in my state. It’s not even legal to use my phone for navigation. If I were to have a massive touch screen navigation system built into the center console, sure, that’s perfectly acceptable. But a cell phone screen mounted closer to my sight line? Nope, that’s forbidden. If it were a single purpose GPS system that would be acceptable, but the simple fact that it also has a cell phone built into it makes it forbidden to use for that purpose.

    I’ve got a CD changer stereo with buttons galore, and using all them while driving is legal. But pressing the next button on my phone if using Pandora to play music? That, again, is apparently the problem. Curiously enough if I had an Ipod I could use it to play music in the car, but the music app on an Iphone is forbidden.

    This leads to the problem of citing distracted driving statistics. I fear that they’re becoming a case where you find whatever conclusion you set out to find. Take the case of GPS boxes versus using cell phones for navigation, or Ipods verses Iphones. When you arbitrarily define the thing that is being used infrequently as safe and the common thing that does the same thing as “distracted”, it’s no surprise that you suddenly find a spike in distracted driving. But the problem is it’s just a game of arbitrary definitions. I know, you think it means texting while driving. But the laws are getting much broader, and as such the statistics will reflect that. If someone made the mistake of using their Iphone instead of the Ipod that they didn’t even think they had any reason to buy, they join the statistics.

    And let’s not even get into the classism inherent in saying that if I spend $40,000 on a brand new car with a cellular data linked navigation system then I would be defined as a safe driver, but since I bought my car used and paid as much for the whole car as I would have for just the navigation system in a new car, I’m a “distracted driver” if I use my phone to for the same purpose.

    Oh yeah, and as to the people I know who drive around with several amateur and CB radios in their cars with multiple antenna aerials bouncing around on their trunk lid? They’re fine too. I’m only allowed to make or answer a phone call on my phone in the car in hands free mode if I press just one button to do it, any more and it’s forbidden. But holding a CB microphone and pressing the transmit button every time you talk is a-okay.

    And needless to say, cops get to have their laptops in their cars that they can use to look up your license plate number while they’re following you. That’s far less distracting than pressing that skip button on Pandora. If one of them ever plows into me while paying more attention to that laptop than the road they’ll never become one of those distracted driving statistics, because they’re defined as not being distracted by law.

  4. says

    Here in Austin TX the signs say no hand held devices. Not sure if that is state or local. That still leaves the auto communication systems as Nomad mentioned.

  5. says

    I’m cool with distracted driving laws.

    I’m pissed they don’t equally apply to the police — every time I see one cruising down Railroad, they’re looking at a screen instead of the road.

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