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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  1. icon
    Jeffrey Nonken (profile), 23 Feb 2012 @ 1:29pm


    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 nüvi.

    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".

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