We've pointed out that some recent studies have suggested that laws that ban texting-while-driving may have actually made the roads more dangerous, because it hasn't stopped people from texting, but just caused them to further hide the activity by holding the phone down low -- forcing them to take their eyes off the road more. This isn't to say that we think texting while driving is a good idea -- it's not. But just because you pass a law trying to ban a really dumb idea, it doesn't mean it will have the desired effect, and the early evidence suggests that there are serious unintended consequences with these laws.
Instead of laws, I think that a combination of education and technology could be a lot more effective, and it appears that at least some law enforcement folks are trying to increase the educational aspect. Parker Mason points us to the news that police in Iowa have started issuing "Txting Kills" thumb bands (sort of like the Livestrong bracelets... but for your thumb) rather than tickets to those caught texting while driving (they're also just handing them out at schools). It's nice to see an educational component, rather than just strict punishment, but I'm not convinced that thumb bands alone will do the trick...
"I'm feeling lucky," may take on new meanings on the roads someday, following the news that Google has been out testing autonomous vehicles on the roads for quite some time, racking up 140,000 miles of travel time. The cars all do have someone sitting behind the wheel ready to take over, but so far they haven't been needed for the most part (one car was hit from behind... and a driver has needed to intervene "occasionally"). Just a few months ago, we were talking about a test of a similar autonomous car traveling from Italy to China, but the Google effort actually seems a lot more advanced. Of course, it kind of makes you wonder why this research is happening from a search engine company... rather than a car company. In the meantime, what was that people were just saying about how none of these Silicon Valley companies were tackling "big" problems any more?
For many years we've questioned the wisdom of various "distracted driving" laws -- such as bans on talking while driving or texting while driving. It's not -- as some people have accused -- that we think texting or using a mobile phone is a good idea while driving. We don't. In fact, it seems to go without saying that trying to send a text message while driving is one of the dumbest things you can do, and I'm amazed that anyone even considers it. My concern has always been that I don't believe the laws work. And, now, it appears that we have some more evidence to support that. A new study has shown that state laws banning driving while texting have not reduced accidents, and in some cases may have even resulted in more accidents. How could it have increased accidents? Because people who want to text anyway -- especially unskilled young drivers -- begin holding their phones lower to avoid detection, making it that much more difficult to control the car and be aware of their surroundings. The study compared before and after stats in states that implemented texting-while-driving bans, and then also compared the findings to neighboring states that didn't have such laws.
This seems like a classic case of politicians not understanding unintended consequences. Politicians love to ban stuff, but they never take into account the actual response to those bans, and just assume that if the law bans something people will stop doing it. Instead, they may continue to do the action in an even less socially acceptable way -- and that can put a lot more people in danger.
The article quotes someone who makes the point that I've been trying to make for years:
"The trouble is that texting and using a cellphone while driving is definitely hazardous. Nobody argues that. The danger in putting all the emphasis on laws is that it is being done to the exclusion of something else that would be more effective."
No one is arguing that texting while driving is a good thing -- just that these laws aren't helping (and may even be making the problem worse). Instead of pretending we live in a perfect world where if something is banned by law, people will stop doing it, why not focus on looking for solutions that actually make people safer?
Perhaps I'm strange, but I have to admit that I've never even considered sending a text message while driving. I will admit to reading a text message while sitting at a traffic light, but that's about the extent of it. Still, with more and more people seemingly unable to resist the temptation, is the best thing to do to fret and complain about this trend, or to try to come up with a technological solution? Is there a technological solution that would let people text safely? I'm not entirely sure, but it does seem a bit surprising that we haven't even heard of the equivalent of the "hands free" kit for texting. There are, of course, plenty of voice recognition offerings out there, but the quality still suffers (and most people still want to check over the results to make sure they work). I could see attempts at "augmented reality" where the screen on the phone shows what's happening on the road, but your focus would still be off. So, are there any technological solutions? My guess is that we're going to wait until we really get autonomous driving vehicles that have an "autopilot" mode before we reach a stage where any sort of texting while driving is safe.
It's not quite the same as the Grand Challenge situation (which had no one in the car, and no lead vehicles or anything like that). In this case, each autonomous vehicle will be following a "lead van." Also, each of the autonomous vehicles will have a "driver" sitting in the driver's seat who is supposed to be able to quickly take over the vehicle should anything go wrong (which sounds like it might be a tougher job than you might imagine, as I would imagine boredom sets in pretty quickly). However, it will also involve real roads with real traffic. In other news, governments between Italy and China are recommending drivers stay off major roads for the next three months...
That said, the folks behind this project admit that "failure is part of the plan." They fully expect problems to arise, and part of the idea is to figure out where those failure points are, so they can work on correcting them. In fact, in a "test drive" before the caravan left, they already experienced problems when a car got between the lead van and the autonomous vehicle in a traffic circle.
We've written at length here about the multitude of problems with speed cameras. What if, instead of focusing on punishing speeders, the speed cameras were used to reward good behavior? Drivers who obey the speed limit are automatically entered into a lottery and then notified by mail if they've won. So, you might pick up your mail one day with a letter from local law enforcement and a check for good driving behavior, rather than a fine for bad driving behavior. This is somewhat reminiscent of the idea from a few years ago where police would pull over good drivers and "reward" them with free coffee coupons -- but avoids the whole "pull over" part, which certainly upset some drivers.
The idea is that the jackpot could come from the fines that were paid from speeders -- so not only do you get rewarded, you get rewarded from the pockets of worse drivers. This method may also serve to make a speeding ticket feel even more painful than just a fine alone. After all, a $500 ticket definitely stings, but a $500 ticket PLUS a little note that had you not been speeding, you could have won $10,000 instead? Ouch, that hurts a lot more.
The idea was the winning entry to VW's "The Fun Theory" competition, where applicants were tasked to design ways to change people's behavior through fun. This is a brilliantly viral campaign that showcases the fact that advertising is content, and if you make engaging content, people will beat a path to your door to watch it. The "piano stairs" entry alone has amassed over 12 million views.
Of course, rewarding good drivers with cash awards does not help governments rake in quite as much in revenue, but speed cameras are supposed to be about safety and not money, right?
As mentioned, while I don't think it's safe for most people to drive while on a mobile phone, I'm a bit skeptical of laws that explicitly forbid driving while yakking. Very few of them seem actually focused on improving safety on the roads -- but they do appear to be a way for state governments to make some extra cash. In California, where the fines were not that big originally, it looks like it's about to get a lot more expensive to drive while talking with you mobile phone held up to your ear (you can still drive while yakking hands free -- despite some studies showing that can be just as dangerous). The politicians involved even admitted that this was more or less the plan all along. Get the law passed by keeping the fines really low, wait a few years, and then jack up the fees. I'm all for making the roads safer, but it's not clear that this law actually does that.
For years, we've questioned the wisdom of straight-up "driving-while-yakking" legislation for a variety of reasons. It always seemed to strike at a symptom, and not the real problem, which is just outright bad driving. While some have falsely interpreted this to mean that we support free reign in letting people drive and talk on a phone, what we argued is more nuanced. The problem is when driving and talking makes things more dangerous. But the same could be true of driving and doing anything else -- and unless we're going to outlaw driving distractions one at a time, it's sort of missing the point. Instead, the focus should be on better driving education on the dangers of being distracted. But, at the same time, there should be a realization that it's not always a terrible thing for a driver to talk on a mobile phone.
In fact, Slashdot points us to a recent study that found a small number (a very small number) of people do not seem to drive worse while talking on their phones (and, in some cases, they even seem to drive better). These so-called "supertaskers" are apparently amazingly good at multitasking. Of course, this probably doesn't apply to you and you (yes, you) probably do drive worse while talking on a mobile phone -- which is why you shouldn't do it. But shouldn't we focus on stopping bad driving in general, rather than a blanket ban on driving while yakking?
We've been suspicious of whether or not "driving while yakking" laws actually do any good. There are already laws against reckless driving, and picking out specific driving distractions doesn't seem likely to change things, since people just switch to other distractions. A study back in 2006 found that driving while yakking laws don't make the roads any safer, and a brand new study has apparently surprised researchers in showing no impact whatsoever on crash data even as studies show that fewer people are holding phones to their ears while driving (thanks Chirag). Now, there could be plenty of reasons for this -- such as that people are just switching to ear pieces which can be just as dangerous. Or it could be that common claims about driving while yakking leading to more accidents are wrong. Or it could be more complex, with other variables having an impact, but which is hidden in the data. Either way, it certainly seems worth investigating more seriously. If the goal is better road safety, then we should make sure that the laws actually lead to that result. If they don't, then it's important to understand why not.
Matthew Cruse alerts us to the news that the Netherlands is the latest in a long line of governments that are considering a "mileage tax" that would require drivers to have GPS devices that track how far they drive, and then tax you for every mile driven. Various US states, including Oregon, California and Massachussetts have toyed with such ideas, and while some in Congress have pushed for it on a national scale, the Obama administration has come out against the idea.
There are lots of problems with the idea, including the privacy implications of the government collecting data on your driving habits. Plus, the massive expense of equipping cars with such devices should not be underestimated. But, the biggest question of all is why such a thing is needed at all. We already have taxes on fuel, which approximates the same thing (the more you drive, the more you pay) which doesn't have the same expense or privacy implications and has the added benefit that it helps encourage more fuel efficient driving. The idea to do a GPS-based mileage tax seems like one of those things that politicians come up with because they want more money, and they get infatuated with some new technology, without thinking through the implications (at all).