The state of Maryland’s approval of a cellphone ban yesterday – by a slim 24-23 margin – perfectly encapsulated all that is both right and wrong with the current mobile phone ban hysteria. Will people be safer driving cars without mobile phones? Probably. Is it reasonable to ask people to use hands-free technology in the car? Definitely. Is the law enforceable? Maybe.
Can all drivers be expected to completely give up mobile phone use in the car? No.
The bigger issue, though, is that the objections to mobile phones in cars masks a movement opposed to an even wider array of emerging and existing automotive technologies and in-cabin interfaces. If the industry does not step forward to defend these technologies, consumers will lose and safety will suffer. This is a topic of legitimate concern given the federal interest in in-vehicle interfaces in both the U.S. and the European Union, among other geographies.
Twenty states and the District of Columbia currently ban text messaging while driving and six states plus the District require hands-free devices. (Stricter laws are already in place in many European countries.) Advocates for the bill dragged out multiple statistical justifications for the legislation calling to mind the apocryphal phrase attributed to Samuel Clemens, among others: There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.
The Washington Post reported that the push to require hands-free devices is seen as a step toward an outright ban on cellphone use by drivers, a prohibition endorsed by the National Safety Council, which blames 1.4M crashes annually on drivers talking on their phones, according to the paper.
The Post continues: “Two-thirds of drivers interviewed by AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety said they thought hands-free cellphone use was less risky. But "scientific research shows that's simply not the case," said Fairley W. Mahlum of the foundation.”
The article further cites a recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that “found no declinen in collision rates” once states went hands-free. This leads to the argument surrounding the cognitive equivalence of talking on a mobile phone held to the ear or speaking over a hands-free system. Many experts argue that the two are equivalent, although a similar number disagree.
Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute has weighed in on the cognitive equivalence side finding no added safety in hands-free operation. The Post quotes Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association: “There's no indication that hands-free is risk-free. You're still on the phone, you're still focused on the conversation, and you're still a distracted driver."
The bill approved Wednesday by the Maryland Senate bans handheld use of cellphones except to begin or end a conversation. First-time offenders can be fined $40. Emergency calls would be exempt. Opponents took some of the teeth out of the legislation with a secondary enforcement requirement that prohibits a police officer from stopping a driver solely for using a mobile phone. The officer must have another reason for finding the driver at fault before enforcing the ban.
The push to completely ban mobile phones in cars is real and is embodied in Oprah Winfrey’s NoPhoneZone campaign. Is the motivation legitimate? Sure it is. Lives are at stake. But I’d strongly argue against throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The supporters of an outright ban on mobile phones in cars have a larger agenda. They are not just opposed to Ford’s social media integration in cars. They also argue that the OnStar service, with its embedded phone, is too distracting. OnStar!?
A recent statement from AAA of New York reflects this anti-technology philosophy:
“Technology improvements and applications present a real double-edged sword for motorists. On one hand, improved driver interfaces for essential vehicle controls hold the potential to make driving safer. Voice-activated climate control systems, for example, can help keep motorists’ eyes on the road and hands on the steering wheel.
“Applied irresponsibly, however, these technologies might actually make driver distraction worse by giving drivers access to even more non-driving activities (voice-driven e-mail and text messaging, for example) that draw their attention away from safe driving. Safety concerns must be paramount when technology advances might encourage motorists to spend more time engaged in risky, non-essential tasks like talking on the phone or sending e-mails via voice recognition software. Technology applications that introduce new distractions for drivers work at cross purposes with the many positive things automotive engineers have done for safety.
“We’ve seen auto manufacturers miss the mark before with improvements that weren’t really improvements. For example, more than twenty years ago a manufacturer made some models with a touch screen control panel that required drivers to look at the screen to change the radio station or adjust the heat. More recently, another manufacturer’s “all in one” vehicle control system was widely criticized for the visual and mental distraction involved in controlling temperature, radio, navigation, and phone using one knob, several buttons, and a display screen. We must make sure that one step forward in the name of convenience doesn’t take safety two steps backward.”
It’s true that we ought to make sure we continue to move forward. But moving forward means embracing technology and harnessing its power to improve safety and convenience in the car. Based on the AAA statement the touchscreen, the iDrive and a host of other innovations might be banned. But why? People can change radio stations today with voice commands as opposed to reaching out for a knob while calibrating the movement of a needle across a dimly lit display.
To return to the matter of safe operation of a phone in a vehicle, multiple solutions have been introduced that leverage technology to control mobile phone use in the car including DriveSafe.ly, SafeReader, tXtBlocker, and Auto TxtBak. But most of these applications lack the policy management elements of a ZoomSafer – which allows for the disabling of phone functions while in a moving vehicle.
In fact, Zoomsafer's Voicemate has application in both consumer and commercial applications for monitoring, managing or controling driver use of connected devices. The solution recognizes the need for access to connected devices and provides the means for facilitating safe uses.
Zoomsafer is offering a technology solution to a technology problem, but it is just one example. New solutions using new interfaces will help the industry steer its way through the challenge of enabling communication in a vehicle. Voice, touch, haptic, gesture, facial recognition, sensor inputs and fusion-based technologies that process all of these inputs are how enhanced safety will be achieved.