New Rules To Block 'Distracted Driving' Will Likely Make Things Worse, Not Better

from the unintended-consequences dept

US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been on this campaign to somehow “wipe out” distracted driving for a while. A couple of years ago, we wrote about his desire to figure out ways to disable mobile phones from working while the car is in motion. After there was a lot of controversy around that, LaHood tried to claim he never really said what he said. However, he’s continued to repeat those kinds of claims again and again — and with the new “guidelines” for automakers being published, we see, once again, his plan to push for technology to force other technologies not to work while a car is moving. According to the Washington Post article linked above:

Drivers won’t be able to text, browse, tweet or dial on factory-installed devices if auto manufacturers follow new federal guidelines to disable the gadgets while the wheels are rolling.

In announcing the latest step in his campaign against distracted driving Thursday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the government might next extend the guidelines to cover virtually every portable electronic device that could find its way into a vehicle.

“These guidelines are a major step forward in identifying real solutions to tackle the issue of distracted driving for drivers of all ages,” said LaHood, who has made distracted driving the marquee issue of his tenure as secretary.

No one denies that distracted driving can be incredibly dangerous and a serious problem. It’s just that many of us question this as a solution. In fact, it seems likely to make the problem worse, not better. First of all, rules that require automakers to disable features while a car is moving completely ignore the fact that not everyone drives alone. Many people have passengers, and it can be quite useful to have a passenger make use of the technology to set the GPS, answer a phone call or whatever else needs to be done. Locking that up for passengers servers no purpose.

But the bigger issue is how this won’t solve the problem and likely will make things worse. The specific guidelines here will focus on issues where the automaker has some control and can disable features while the car is moving — so that would be console based info, or situations where a phone is connected to the car’s information systems via Bluetooth or some other technique. But, really, all that’s likely to do is to cause people to route around the block making things more dangerous. We’ve already seen this. Laws against texting-while-driving seemed like a good idea, but the real impact appears to have made the roads more dangerous. That’s because people didn’t stop texting-while-driving, they just started being more careful to hide the activity, by placing the phone lower down, such as in their laps, rather than up on the dashboard or above the steering wheel. Now, neither situation is good — but at least if the device is up, the driver can pay some more attention to the road, rather than taking their eyes completely off the road.

The nice thing about an integrated information system in a car is that it can be designed to try to minimize such issues and risks, creating compelling ways to get stuff done, while allowing drivers to keep their attention on the road. Doing an outright ban simply pushes people to route around that integrated system, and likely will have them be even more distracted as they try to hide the activity. The simple fact is that you can’t ban stupidity. We all agree that distracted driving is a problem and is dangerous — but these guidelines will likely make the problem worse, not better.

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Comments on “New Rules To Block 'Distracted Driving' Will Likely Make Things Worse, Not Better”

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weneedhelp (profile) says:

Screw phones

Stop the dizzy blond in front of me putting on makeup, talking on her phone, while reading some kind of book. I am totally serious here. I saw this a month or so ago. As we got off the same exit, I went right and she went left, but I had a nice view in to her car from my truck, and yes she was putting on makeup, holding a phone & had a book on the steering wheel.

MrWilson says:

I could see this leading to the auto manufacturers getting pissed off because people won’t spend the extra money on special features that they can’t use while they’re driving.

Imagine someone who uses their vehicle for really long road trips and needs to make phone calls for work. They’re not going to stop and lose an hour of driving time just to talk on the phone. So they’ll just use a non-factory-installed option that doesn’t have the same limitations.

This is the DRM-crippled, unskippable movie previews and FBI warnings vs. DRM-free pirated version conflict all over again, except instead of being able to “pirate” features, people are just going to be buying third party devices instead of giving yet more money to the car manufacturers.

Way to make businesses competitive, Mr. Government!

jsl4980 (profile) says:

These new rules assume that distracted driving was invented by cell phones.

They completely ignore every other potential cause of distracted driving like drinking, eating, talking, using a radio, figuring out cruise control/other features, and even just not paying attention. Will these new rules ban drivers from changing radio stations while driving? Changing CDs? Changing songs on an iPod? Will they ban using other technological car features like cruise control? head lights? blinkers?

To many old people who don’t know how to text assume that technology has made things worse and that texting is worse than eating a sandwich while driving. These rules are ridiculous reactions from old people who fear everything new that they don’t understand.

sehlat (profile) says:

Neither Stupidity Nor Hubris Are Limited to Lawmakers

To quote from your earlier post re: regulation and the Economist:

One is hubris. Many lawmakers seem to believe that they can lay down rules to govern every eventuality.

The transportation secretary has the same “There oughta be a law.” attitude and makes the usual fatuous assumption that people will act the way he wants them to just because there’s a law.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Screw phones

I just wish people would use their cars for what they were intended for. When I was a kid, I dreamed of the day that I could be old enough to drive a car. Now, every time I am on the road (I enjoy the drive) I have to worry about all the things everyone else is doing while driving.

However, I agree, laws don’t fix behavior (they often don’t fix anything,) and the only thing that fixes behavior is education (ok, I guess I can also include losing your car in a collision you caused and also a tombstone for the fatal accident you caused, but the best is education.)

silverscarcat says:

This would be very bad for me.

While my in-city driving is decent enough, driving long distances is a problem for me, I have a problem staying awake if I drive for more than an hour. Music and the windows down doesn’t help me very much.

I need to talk to people, interact, it’s the only way to keep my mind going and, dare I say it, distracted enough to keep from zoning out while I’m in the car and putting me to sleep. Take away the only ability I have to do that (calling on a cell phone), then it puts me and everyone around me at risk because I’m more likely to fall asleep on the road.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think Mike that you have the same blind spot on many issues.

It isn’t what the truly stupid people will do, nor is it about what the very smart people won’t do. It’s what the large segment in the middle will do, present with the possiblity.

If you make calling in a car much harder, if make it so that the car’s automation system don’t help you to do distracting things (like send text messages), then many more people will just not do them.

Combine that will laws the have significant fines and penalties for doing it, and over time, it becomes a less common activity.

Yes, some people will still text and drive. Some people also drink and drive. You cannot stop the stupidity – but you can make it much easier for a whole bunch of people to NOT make the bad choice.

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:

Final Solution

Look, we just need to remove people from the whole “driving” thing altogether.

In case you don’t know, autonomous vehicles are a reality.

If they want to save people from distracted drivers, just ban drivers. Problem solved.

On the plus side, think of the amazingly wide-open market demand this will create for all sorts of upcoming driverless cars!

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:

...NOT make the bad choice.

It is every humans God given right to kill themselves at whatever speed and in whatever manner they wish. Be it slowly by beer and lack of exercise or quickly via skydiving and dynamite--or anything in between.

Kindly piss off with your whole "nanny state" rhetoric. The purpose of the state is to SERVE the population, not dominate every aspect of their existence.

Anonymous Coward says:

...NOT make the bad choice.

It doesn’t work.

Education about drinking and driving alone generally doesn’t work as well as strict enforcement does. The visible levels of police sobriety check points, along with educational campaigns to explain what they are can change people’s attitudes and opinions over time.

Look at smoking. Even with all the education in the world, it has taken generations to cut the smoking rates. The real momentum of change has come not because of education, but because of the banning of many types of smoking related advertising, sponsorships, and visibility. It’s not something that happens overnight, and it is something that wasn’t happening only with education.

Making it less easy to be stupid (by making the smart choice the default) is something that generally will work. I would like to think that a car company didn’t specifically make it possible for people to send text messages from their drivers seat when driving next to me on the highway.

Lord Binky says:


Cell phones use while driving is a $500 fine in my town. I still see it regularly, the impact has been miniscule.

The problem I have with what you’re suggesting is that we make laws that impact everyone, just so we can lower the number of people performing a bad habit while at the same time, increasing the likelihood of accidents for the people the law does not persuade.

There are so many unknowns, the odds of it being a positive result is stupidly low. We have no idea what percentage of people are in which group (people that stop, people that continue), while we do know that the people that continue to be distracted become significantly more risky to everyone. You may be an optimist about the general population’s common sense, but that is certainly not my experience. You can try to think ahead and make things safe, but people will always out-stupid you.

And no, punishments do not make it easier for people to not make a bad choice. Punishments are a reactive response, not proactive, so the person’s ability of performing the bad choice is not changed. That’s why a law like this doesn’t help, the ONLY alternative is not a safer method, but a riskier method. That’s why hands free laws ALMOST work is because the alternatives are simple and cheap.

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:

...NOT make the bad choice.

Smoking is a horrid example to choose. Just because somebody does something you do not like doesn’t mean it should be banned.

It sounds to me like you take a real issue with free will–damn them people are their wrong choices! We’ll just have to force them to make the right choice next time.

Envision this: A world with no laws where nobody would ever even contemplate driving while intoxicated–not because it’s illegal, but because they know at the core of their being somebody else could get hurt. No laws required, no mandated punishments enforced, just enlightened self interest.

You are preaching falsehoods which lead only to a fascist nanny state; where everything you do is controlled–for your own good–and if you do not choose what we’ve chosen for you, then you’ll suffer as violently as necessary until you do choose what’s been already decided for you.. Do you not see the dystopia you’re aiming for??!?

Jeffrey Nonken (profile) says:


If you make calling in a car much harder, if make it so that the car’s automation system don’t help you to do distracting things (like send text messages), then many more people will just not do them.

[citation needed]

People will find ways to do things they want to do. Pass laws against texting? They’ll hide it. Disable your bluetooth connection? People will use headsets, or the built-in speakerphones, or just hold the phones up to their ears. (You know, like they’re doing now.) GPS disabled while you’re driving? (Really? F’ing REALLY? I have to pull over to zoom in on a tricky upcoming turn? Will having to pull over several lanes to the side and then merge back into high-speed traffic while trying to navigate in unfamiliar territory really make me safer?) People will eschew the built-in GPS and buy a n?vi.

It isn’t what the truly stupid people will do, nor is it about what the very smart people won’t do. It’s what the large segment in the middle will do, present with the possiblity.

It takes a super-genius to buy a Jawbone, I’ve noticed that.

Somewhere, somehow, somebody has duck-taped his cellphone to his headrest and proudly dubbed it “hands-free”.

pixelpusher220 (profile) says:


Seriously if you can’t stay focused on driving or even awake for longer than an hour, don’t drive longer than an hour. You also might want to try medication as that sounds fairly close to narcolepsy.

I had a great Aunt born turn of the century who was never allowed to drive by her husband. She was literally the ‘ooooo look at that over there’ type who would literally just stop and look at something for 5 minutes completely oblivious to what was she was just previously doing. Not good if you’re driving.

Adding in a cell phone into the mix isn’t going to help you on average.

Benjo (profile) says:

...NOT make the bad choice.

I understand where you are coming from, but your first point I don’t agree with. I don’t believe strict enforcement (highly visible) has done anything to curb drinking and driving behavior. Most studies show that stricter enforcement leads to an increase in arrests, not necessarily a decrease in the behavior itself.

Your second point doesn’t really follow with your argument. It’s incredibly obvious that reducing advertising and affecting marketing for tobacco companies will decrease smoking rates. This isn’t really analogous to stupid behavior in cars.

pixelpusher220 (profile) says:

Final Solution

run until hardware failure

So you’re expecting people to actually ‘maintain’ their cars?

The airline industry still has software faults and yet that is one of the most highly regulated transport industries.

A tire blowout at highway speeds with cars stacked in for high speed throughput (this is a prime example used for auto-car support – cars can run just inches from each other if they are auto-controlled) begs a massive pileup.

I’m in favor of auto-navigation cars, but there are still lots and lots of issues to work out. And sadly the key issue among them is liability. If your car kills someone while under auto-navigation, who is legally responsible? You? The car maker? The programmer? The sensor makers? It gets really grey really fast.

Lord Binky says:

...NOT make the bad choice.

*rolls up newspaper* No, Bad Logic, No.

Cutting the advertisements allowed the public education to spread. This is because 1) education from government entities is boring especially compaired to the adverisements, 2) The number of smokers getting hooked young decreased.

And no, education was working, but moving away from generalized, “it’s bad” to “yeah… you will likely live long enough for smoking to shit on your health, and at that point your screwed, let’s take a look exactly how” was a huge improvement. And I always think it’s damn retarded, you can buy cigarettes, but it is illegal to grow your own tobacco plant. Yes I know lobbists won that one, but really, the additives are bad but you won’t let people make their own additive free? brilliant.

Final point, Look at smoking pot, it’s ridiculous how many people hide that activity, despite it being illegal and the (admittedlly very poor and HILARIOUS) “education” on it. The laws just HIDE the problem.

Anonymous Coward says:


Are you really so distracted by eating food?

Try this: eat a sandwich while reading a book. Can you do it? Like, can you chew and read at the same time?

Now, can you read a book while simultaneously reading and responding to text messages?

As for other distractions, most of those have tactile feedback. I don’t need to look at the radio dial to know I’m turning it. I don’t need to look at my cruise control switch to turn it on. I can switch CDs without looking at the dash (finding the CD is another story, though). Even older push-button cell phones gave a tactile response; I never had much problem typing without looking the phone. iPods and smartphones obviously lack this. And if you don’t already know how to turn on your blinkers or headlights without looking at the controls, well, I doubt much can help with that; but then again, you wouldn’t have been able to pass your driver’s test in the first place.

Lord Binky says:


I totally agree it’s a brain activity thing. I had that drowsy habit before when I got treated for sleep apnea (Hell if I knew my brain forgot to tell me to breathe in my sleep). Anyways, Things that I found helpful

1) Audiobooks, It’s different than music or even singing along. It is mentally engaging enough for me.

2) Sunflower seeds, The mental activity of cracking & spitting shells and additional blood flow in the head from chewing staves off any kind of drowsy for me. Snacks don’t work as well for me since the chewing action alone isn’t enough.

3) Conversations, more or less worked but often just temporarily.

TasMot (profile) says:

Soon we won't own our cars like we don't own our phones

My Verizon stupid s**t phone has a lot of Verizon CRAPWARE apps on it that I can’t remove. My new Nissan has a navigation system that I can only set when I have the car in park. So, I have another navigation system on the dash that isn’t hooked into the car except for power. I use the one on the dash. I won’t buy a navigation system built into my next car.

My Nissan also has a built in DVD system for the kids in the back. BUT, when I start moving, my wife can’t make adjustments to it on the front panel like we can when the car is in part (you know, complicated things like hit play). So she has to get out the remote and lean into the back seat to work the DVD player. When I’m driving the kids by myself, that’s what I have to do. Why is this better? I like the idea of the built in screen, but now I need to figure out how to rewire it so that I can control the DVD player. Which means that I will end up with a DVD player floating around in the car that I have to take my eyes off the road to locate, make the adjustments, and then put back. This is going to be much less distracting than just reaching up to the dash and pushing play isn’t it.

On the other hand, my Nissan also has a hands free bluetooth for my phone. This is really great. Except, I can’t dial from the dash while I’m moving. Nope, I have to get the phone out of my pocket, type in the unlock code, select the phone dialer application, dial the number, and then put it back in my pocket. Of course, that is much much less distracting than just dialing from the dash board at 65 miles an hour.

weneedhelp (profile) says:

Final Solution

“I’m in favor of auto-navigation cars”
Yeah things like blind side assistance, you put on your turn signal and a warning buzzer alerts you to a car being in your blind spot. Sensors in the road, again assisting the user to alert them for drifting into other lanes/cars.

And before you guys get any funny ideas:
blind side assistance – patent pending
warning buzzer alerts – patent pending
Sensors in the road – patent pending

Even when just kidding it feels sooooo dirty.

Driver assistance – patent pending
buzzers – patent pending

Help! I cant stop!

safety devices for automated avoidance response systems – patent pending

automated avoidance response systems or AARS – Trademarked!

Lord Binky says:

...NOT make the bad choice.

I’ve seen two different methods try to tackle the drinking and driving problem, neither of which does much besides make people work harder to not get caught. It’s like in highschool where you people are motivated to spend more time and effort trying to successfully cheat than they would have just doing the work.

So, in New Mexico, they try to publicly shame the people caught DUI, by posting the time, place, location, and picture of the person caught on tv, in newspapers, and on the internet.

In Texas, you have the the world renowned TABC, going into bars and making arrests for public intoxication before they drink and drive, as well as the standard methods of catching drunk drivers with road stops and camping out in the parking lots of bars and clubs. As well as huge fines and fees and punishments for getting caught.

I haven’t heard of drinking and driving problems being nearly eradicated anywhere. Funny that. Either stupid people are smart, or they can just out-stupid you.

jsl4980 (profile) says:


Reading a book is nothing like driving a vehicle. That’s a terrible comparison. That’s not even worth responding to.

Eating is incredibly distracting. It takes at least one hand to eat most foods from drive through (burger, sandwich, taco). Changing the station on a radio requires you to divert attention from the road to the radio, same with changing CDs.

My point is the clueless old people bitching about texting grew up with changing radio stations (some with dials) or swapping/flipping cassettes or switching CDs. They don’t think these are evil (but their predecessors probably did). Because they didn’t grow up knowing how to text they think the new technologies are the only evil and dangerous technologies. Now with voice recognition texting is probably safer than most other distractions.

Only singling out texting is stupid and shows our bureaucrats are clueless. If they’re going to ban texting then they should ban changing CDs, changing radio stations, eating, drinking, and checking paper maps (really dangerous).

Lord Binky says:


I don’t have to look at my food the entire time I eat, I don’t have to see the radio to be able to turn it on, change volume, station, or mode.

The problem of texting is severely worse than driving one handed, because it requires your sight to be off the road for significant amounts of time. Most people could flick a glance that takes no longer than checking rear view mirror or the gauges and know the CD by it’s design/label. Then be able to remove and insert the disk without staring the entire time. While texting people look at the phone the entire time they are typing as well recieveing the text. During these elongated times, they will miss any visual cues of changes in the environment, AND no longer drive in the lane/straight. This is different than actions where other senses are used to in place of sight. You note it yourself, checking paper maps, yes, just as bad as texting because sight is taken away from the road for extended periods, you don’t read with a glance.

Aaron (user link) says:

Since 1973, car accident statistics (meaning the amount of car accidents and the specifics surrounding car accidents) have dissipated every year. The decrease in car statistics is largely due to more stringent driving laws and technological advances found in cars to help eliminate the likelihood of a vehicular accident. Additionally, such advances have made cars safer, which have precipitated an overall decrease in the amount of serious injuries and fatalities suffered as a result of car accidents.

ShellMG says:

Soon we won't own our cars like we don't own our phones

I drive a 2001 Dodge Grand Caravan. It’s really showing it’s age and mileage and the drivers’ side door no longer locks properly. It doesn’t have an input jack…and has a cassette player.

It also doesn’t continuously beep after I close the door. The seat belt light doesn’t flash, the dash doesn’t talk back, there’s no security codes to enter or other “safety features” that nag, insult and cajole.

I’m thinking about keeping it until I walk into the garage and find a four tires and a pile of rust.

Anonymous Coward says:

...NOT make the bad choice.

What you don’t seem to want to understand is I am not advocating one over the other. Education alone does nothing, as it doesn’t really have carrot / stick value. It mostly comes across as your parents nagging you for not cleaning your room.

The most effective advertising against drunk driving, as an example, are those which show real life results. Graphic, gory details. When you combine them with higher, visible enforcement, and move to make drink driving into a socially unacceptable act, then things can change.

In the case at hand, we have the ability to make it more difficult to commit the dangerous act. We can make cars NOT help people to do something bad. Why would anyone be against that?

MikeVx (profile) says:

Phones in the car

Since the time I first got a cell phone, I’ve used whatever handsfree abilities were available. My current phone in concert with my current GPS means that the only thing I can’t do by voice command is answer the phone when a call comes in. And that is at least down to reaching out and tapping the answer button on the GPS screen. I can place calls without any use of hands by voice control. The GPS (a Garmin N?vi) does all the voice processing for call handling. I can give it contacts from the phone book by name, and even dial arbitrary numbers just by speaking them into the unit. This makes it much easier to keep eyes on the road and still be able to handle calls.

And on the navigation front, apart from having to touch in the security code when I turn it on, the major navigation features are also voice controlled. A common use of this is requesting a detour when I can see a jam ahead, another is locating a gas station by means other than watching for signs.

Used with good sense (not common sense, common sense is codified stupidity, common sense gets people killed) these gadgets are actually safer than not having them around.

As for distraction, I actually cultivate a small amount of distraction when driving, it keeps my mind more focussed on the road, as odd as that sounds. This makes more sense when you allow for driving fugue. In the absence of distractions, I can lose awareness and start paying attention again in a different state than I started out in. The intervening time is just gone. I therefore tend to load my CD player (car is too old for MP3 hookup) with audio books and radio shows of various types to hold enough of my attention that there is some available for the road. This is only an issue on long drives, and when possible, I keep talking to my passenger when I have one or more.

I suspect that people who claim to pay full attention to the road at all times actually have no clue about how much their mind is doing. Remember that the human brain has this habit of creating dedicated systems to handle things you do repeatedly to “take the load off” of your mind. Driving is no different. Once the systems are in place, your conscious mind can be at loose ends while the dedicated system does its job. If you doubt this, try to imagine the incredibly complex chain of events that is walking. You have to start by tilting your body mass forward so your balance center shifts, then you swing a leg forward (a series of actions all by itself) to that it hits a place on the ground ahead of you such that your mass will be lifted by the lever action in concert with muscles to add force, then you have to repeat this action with the other leg, all while you have to shift your mass side-to-side because of your changing balance point, a process that usually involves your arms, but if they are full you have the additional complexity of adjusting your stride and swing to allow for not having the arms available as counterweights. And this incredibly complex chain of events is handled by most people while talking, eating, photographing, and a range of other tasks that in themselves are complex. And they give almost no thought to walking while doing it.

As a practical matter, I suspect that only humans with certain varieties of cognitive disorder can actually pay full attention to an extremely repetitive task indefinitely. The rest of us go on autopilot, and there is no way to change this, as it is part and parcel of being human. Trying to ban all distractions is pointless, as if nothing else, the mind will either wander off into mental processing to keep itself occupied, or it will go on hold and wait for a signal from a subsystem that something needs attention that the subsystem cannot supply.

vito says:

Soon we won't own our cars like we don't own our phones

i dunno, my Nissan bluetooth accepts voice commands. Just push the offhook button, say “call joe”, then say “dial” and it goes through. maybe you should try it without setting a lock code on yer phone. as far as nav system not working when the car is moving…..well, i fixed that. takes about 10 minutes in a Cube, not sure which model you have but i’m sure it’s a similar hack. i’d love to share the fix with you if yer interested.

Brad says:

Silly Article

The article is ridiculous. First the number of people who are not driving alone but are with people who could “help” the driver with their job is a statistical rounding error.

Second, the notion that hands free or texting while holding the phone above the steering wheel is safer is held up by actual study.

Third, the chorus of comments leads me to believe that everyone here is above average, a better driver than anyone else, and is oh so diligent and thoughtful when it comes to their own use, “oh but everyone else is doing it wrong….” I’m sure that’s the case. Just hang up.

Erik Wood (profile) says:

Tech should be part of the solution

I read that 94% of drivers think Text and Drive is lethal but over one third still do it. What to do? I think legislation has value in raising public awareness in forums like this one but it will be difficult to solely legislate our way out of this issue. I just read that over 3/4 of teens text daily – many text more than 4000 times a month. New college students no longer have email addresses! They use texting and Facebook – even with their professors. Tweens (ages 9 -12) send texts to each other from their bikes. This text and drive issue is in its infancy and its not going away.

I decided to do something about distracted driving after my three year old daughter was nearly run down right in front of me by a texting driver. Instead of a shackle that locks down phones and alienates the user (especially teens) I built a tool called OTTER that is a simple GPS based, texting auto reply app for smartphones. It also silences those irresistible call ringtones while driving unless you have a bluetooth enabled. I think if we can empower the individual then change will come to our highways now and not just our laws.

Erik Wood, owner

Lord Binky says:

...NOT make the bad choice.

By making the car not help the person do something like text, it forces the person to find other means that are more likely to be even riskier. The same rule also prevents anyone from making a car that can perform the action safely for the driver, so the end result is that a solution is illegal and the only option is to take even more risk.

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