I am speaking to the National Associate of Insurance Commissioners tomorrow, Monday, in Indianapolis, IN, on the subject of distracted driving and on behalf of Strategy Analytics and Global Mobile Alert – a company with patents governing the use of location technology and wireless communications to mitigate driver distraction.
Strategy Analytics surveys show self-reported daily smartphone use in cars while driving in the U.S. declining in each of the past three years - but still a problem encompassing writing and reading texts, and making and receiving calls. And that is not the limit of app use while driving.
Insurers have a clear vested interest in the emerging problem of driver distraction and how it can be solved. The broad message is that the problem can be solved with technology and that laws should support and guide the progress and adoption of life-saving technology.
Unfortunately, legislators and regulators have been erring recently on the side of bans, regulations and laws that have created confusion among consumers and challenges for law enforcement. As an example, 12 states have bans on handheld phone use, five have partial bans; three states have no texting ban, six states have a partial ban and 41 have complete texting bans.
The first step to a simplified scheme for mitigating distracted driving in the U.S. ought to be the adoption of a do-not-touch-your-phone-while-driving directive from the Federal government. In the absence of such clarity, a fragmented landscape of texting and handsheld phone bans has spread across the country.
To contend with this legal hodge-podge, the four leading wireless carriers in the U.S. are heavily promoting a public service campaign intended to discourage mobile phone users from texting while driving. The campaign is called “It Can Wait” and features public service announcements that include celebrities and victims of distracted driving incidents discouraging the use of mobile phones for texting while driving and encouraging mobile phone users to take a pledge not to text and drive.
The campaign is unique in the world because of the regulatory environment in the U.S. since states pass the laws governing the use of mobile devices in cars. The Federal government also passes laws, conditionally manages highway funds, and promulgates guidelines and mandates.
Federal involvement in regulation in the U.S. can include everything from Congress to the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Communications Commission. The texting and driving problem – blamed by NHTSA for an estimated 3,000 annual fatalities in the U.S. – raises questions regarding smartphone integration in cars impacting both the automotive and wireless industries, both of which support substantial lobbying operations in the U.S. capitol.
The lobbying organizations represent the interests of the two respective industries, both of which are struggling to come to terms with the relatively recent phenomenon of smartphone use in cars, generally, and texting, in particular. The regulatory agencies are under pressure from crash victims and the general public to find ways to mitigate the impact of smartphone-related driver distraction that has emerged in the past few years as a source of crashes and fatalities around the world.
In fact, the issue of driver distraction has even impacted public transportation, with mobile phones implicated in multiple train and even bus crashes around the world. There is no question that an urgent problem exists.
The safety of the driving public in the U.S., as in other nations, is influenced by the decisions of car makers, wireless carriers, insurance companies, handset manufacturers, and app developers as well as regulators and legislators. In many countries, though certainly not in all, regulatory authorities have banned the use of mobile devices by drivers.
Multiple organizations in the U.S., and even the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), have recommended the complete jamming or disabling of mobile phones in cars. NHTSA has taken the path of encouraging states to ban both handheld use of phones and smartphone texting by drivers.
The good news is that NHTSA has not gone so far as to throw the baby out with the bathwater by opting for mobile phone jamming in cars. NHTSA continues to work with car makers and their suppliers to develop voluntary guidelines, not only because they can have more immediate impact than rule-making, but also because they recognize that solving the problem is a work in progress.
In this context, the It Can Wait campaign is not unlike the warning on packages of cigarettes and other consumer products – smoking (and texting) can kill. Clearly the wireless carriers have taken this pre-emptive step to head off onerous regulations and to make unequivocal their commitment to safety.
The underlying feeling is that an outright ban on the use of smartphones in cars will only motivate consumers to use their phones illegally. A ban will not halt the problem.
Unfortunately for all involved – car makers, carriers, consumers and regulators – no single in-vehicle connectivity system has emerged as a safe and simple solution to smartphone connectivity. Each car maker is pursuing its own path, undermining the potential for a national education campaign around universal smartphone connectivity.
A simpler do-not-touch-the-phone-while-driving law would have the added benefit of making the requirements for in-vehicle system interfaces fairly clear cut for car makers and app developers alike. Even the carriers would benefit.
(In addition to laws that specifically mention mobile phone use in cars there are laws against all forms of distraction in the car which are routinely enforced and can include drinking coffee or applying makeup. In fact, reckless driving is usually up to the discretion of the enforcement officer and could be interpreted to include texting while driving.)
Opinions vary about the degree of danger associated with looking at or touching mobile devices in moving vehicles. In many countries enforcement is lax regarding limits on the use of mobile devices by drivers.
The concerns regarding distraction also apply to embedded navigation systems and other on-board apps as well. In many cars and in many countries it is impossible to pair a Bluetooth phone or enter navigation destination information while a vehicle is moving.
NHTSA is working on the third generation of its set of guidelines for the design of in-vehicle systems to mitigate distraction. The fact that NHTSA has progressed to a third generation of these guidelines is but one indication of the degree of difficulty to the challenge facing the agency as it tries to regulate mobile device use and mitigate distraction.
Car makers and wireless carriers are genuinely concerned about the problem and the It Can Wait campaign reflects a broad-based effort to raise awareness and stop the mis-use of smartphones in moving vehicles. The problem for both the car makers and the carriers is that smartphone integration in cars is rapidly becoming a powerful selling point for new cars – creating a scenario where an integrated smartphone can either be part of the problem or part of the solution.
The challenge for the industry is complex. Car makers are only just beginning to understand how to leverage connected smartphones to sell cars. Honda, Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota, among others, have all begun using smartphone integration in their cars as a prominent selling point – including Chevrolet advertising the integration of Apple’s Siri voice recognition capability in the new Sonic.
The ads walk a fine line between promoting smartphone use without encouraging reckless or dangerous applications, such as texting. But the industry is at a critical crossroads where smartphone integration is a powerful marketing tool, but one that requires educating consumers on how to connect their smartphones and use them safely.
A properly integrated smartphone will surrender control of applications to the vehicle’s interfaces. The problem lies in the fact that connecting smartphones in cars is a non-intuitive process. Multiple car makers report that usage of smartphone connections, outside of Bluetooth hands-free phone connections, is minimal.
For the auto makers to successfully and safely integrate phones, they must make the process simpler while training consumers and dealers in how to connect phones in cars. Unfortunately, most of the early smartphone integration initiatives focused on applications such as Twitter and Facebook thereby highlighting the dangers of smartphone connections contributing to driver distraction.
Car makers have wised up. The focus has recently shifted almost exclusively to navigation and streaming audio applications, both of which are more suited to the driving task and less likely to contribute to distraction.
Navigation and location-related applications, in particular, are increasingly emerging as key elements to building a location-aware connected car experience. Car makers are beginning to understand that location awareness – enabled by vehicle connections (either embedded or smartphone-based) can help mitigate distraction and enhance safety.
A car with a connection is more likely to have up-to-date maps, traffic and weather information, all of which can contribute to driving safety. At the core of these development activities is the objective of creating a location aware experience in the car and connected smartphones are especially well suited to achieving this objective.
Location awareness in the car is essential for a variety of purposes, not the least of which is safety. The original location aware system in the car is the car radio which delivers local traffic, news and weather as well as emergency notifications and even local advertising messages.
Smartphone connectivity introduces the possibility for:
Hyper local traffic and weather
Crowd-sourced road condition information
POI information – fuel, parking, tolls, food, lodging
Roadside assistance, automatic crash notification, and event data recording
In fact, a properly connected and integrated smartphone is capable of managing the driver’s workload, limiting or managing voice and text communications, and alerting the driver to hazardous driving conditions. In fact, Global Mobile Alert is designed to interrupt in-vehicle communications to alert drivers to intersections, school zones and railroad crossings - along with a pull over to text notification to the driver with an auto-response.
The company also holds patents for wireless communicating signal light phases to cars. (Global Mobile Alert is open to making its patents available for tests and trials.)
Car makers and carriers should be focused on solving the smartphone connectivity challenge with the primary goal of yielding control of the device to the car. The best smartphone interfaces in cars disable or block use of the device’s screen – thereby removing any temptation to touch or use the device directly.
We have the technology to solve the problem of distracting driving, all that remains is to adopt the appropriate regulatory framework – ie. do not touch the phone while driving. Technology and creative engineers in the wireless and automotive industries will solve the rest.