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Merrie Spaeth: What To Do About Distracted Drivers

Texas already bans the use of cell phones for calls and texting for bus drivers and novice drivers (during the first 12 months). We ban hand-held cell phones and texting for all drivers in school zones. There’ve been calls to do more nationwide, but commentator Merrie Spaeth questions if it would really work.

In 1930, a State Senator from New England tried to ban car radios, saying they were distracting drivers and causing accidents. He didn’t succeed, but concerns remain about distracted driving. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says we are in the midst of a “distracted driving epidemic,” and we need a national ban against texting on cell phones while driving. Is he right? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 3092 people were killed in 2010 and 416,000 injured in car accidents involving a distracted driver.

Let’s concede anything that takes drivers eyes off the road distracts from safe driving. Studies show sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for 4 to 5 seconds, enough to drive the length of a football field at 55 miles per hour. But, once you start to look at the issue, it’s not nearly as simple as it seems. Some studies suggest a ban on texting makes things worse because drivers hold the phone down on their lap, where police can’t see them doing it.  In addition, that data about what drivers were doing when they crashed comes from what drivers tell police after the accident. In other words, it’s the sort of information we’re likely not to share with police if it’s illegal.

The cell phone industry says the auto industry needs to do more, such as technologies which warn the driver he has drifted into another lane. The auto industry is moving quickly to develop such technologies but they are equipping new cars with WiFi,  the better to tweet and update your Facebook page. The auto industry, incidentally, blames the cell phone industry for developing all these cool features.

No one wants accidents and certainly not deaths, so why not pass laws to ban distracted driving? The first problem is that the list of what distracts drivers is almost endless; it includes eating, talking, grooming, reading, using a navigation system and adjusting other electronic devices, swatting at children and petting your dog. So, we’re talking a long list of activities,enough to make 100 percent of drivers into criminals.

The next problem is we already know not to do it. Study after study shows drivers admit distracted driving is dangerous and we do it anyway. And It’s not just drivers who get distracted and cause accidents. People are walking in front of cars or bikes while talking on the phone or texting. If we try to ban distractions while driving, why not ban phone use while walking? A new study finds the accidents caused by texting while walking are skyrocketing. A new security camera video posted on YouTube last week shows someone tripping right into a fountain – while texting.

One form of education which does seem to have an impact on teen behavior are high tech simulators. These seem to work because they are realistic so the driver gets really scared.

Some people think regulating distracted driving would be like seat belt use. After almost 30 years of requiring people to wear seat belts, some 85 percent of people buckle up. But seat belts are simple to see and to enforce.

Let’s focus on other players who can exert influence. Insurance companies could offer incentives or discounts for drivers who pledge to abstain from the list of distractions and to pull over when using cell phones. Insurance companies are already in the debate about whether to assess insurance rates per mile driven so they’re already thinking about innovations in pricing. I also found a number of apps trying to track calls or disable phones while driving. None of them seemed ready for prime time, but innovation in this area is clearly under way, too.  Let’s give them time to develop.

That state senator in 1930? He gave up trying to ban radios.  We should do the same with cell phones.

Merrie Spaeth is a communications consultant based in Dallas..