Easy answers are elusive for distracted-driving problem
January 1, 2011
It’s a little too soon to tell whether the push to get people to keep their cell phones in the glove box while driving will have the societal acceptance of, say, the push to ban public smoking.
In the last eight years, 30-some states have passed laws designed to limit exposure to what’s long been regarded as a health threat. Even more impressive is those laws were all passed at the state level without the federal government threatening to withhold tax dollars to force implementation, as it did with tougher seatbelt and drunk-driving laws in the 1980s.
But getting drivers to stop using what many people consider to be an essential business tool and personal accessory won’t be so easy, I think.
That doesn’t mean Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood isn’t trying. As I wrote in this month’s story, “Driving to distraction,” LaHood has taken on distracted driving as his office’s signature issue. For the secretary, that covers everything from eating behind the wheel to tuning the radio. He cites studies that say thousands of highway accidents each year are caused by the inattentiveness of motorists. I don’t doubt that’s accurate. But it’s the ever-expanding capabilities of cellular phones that really worry LaHood. Texting, talking or using a phone’s navigation system all take drivers’ eyes and minds off the road ahead of them, he says.
Some successLaHood’s crusade has had some success. In the last few years, 30 states have banned texting for drivers. And eight states also ban handheld cell phone use by motorists.
No state forbids adults from talking on cell phones using a headset or speakerphone. The transportation secretary says he hopes all states eventually pass such legislation.
However, if they don’t, LaHood says other actions may be required. In a recent interview, LaHood expressed support for technology that would block cell phone signals from working in automobiles. He did not say his office would push for its adoption, however.
Personally, I’m conflicted on this issue. I think mandating phone-jamming devices in cars could prevent safe phone use by passengers as well as emergency use by drivers. Such heavy-handed government action could also see a strong pushback from U.S. consumers and automakers, many of which now offer a bevy of profitable, integrated vehicle cell phone systems. But I agree that your mind reacts differently when you’re driving and talking on a cellular phone, whether using an earpiece or not. I’ve experienced it myself, and try to avoid long phone conversations in heavy traffic.
I’m also skeptical of how a ban on all in-car cell use would be received by the public, although a November poll by Quinnipiac University said almost two-thirds of Americans are OK with such a law. The survey also said 69 percent of those asked said they rarely or never use their phones while driving - other studies have contradicted that claim.
Most people think they are good drivers and can handle their makeup, cell phones and fast food behind the wheel; it’s everyone else who can’t. What do you think?