Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood deserves praise for focusing public attention on distracted driving.
The market today is flooded with electronic devices that can be used in motor vehicles and millions of motorists are using them with reckless abandon, putting themselves, their passengers and their fellow travelers in danger.
We've all seen these accidents waiting to happen. A driver holding up traffic while he or she, with head down, finishes a text message, a car swerving into another lane of traffic while the driver reads an email, or a driver recklessly maneuvering through traffic with one hand on the wheel and the other performing that infamous one-handed dialing exercise.
Secretary LaHood has seen the future of unsafe driving with even more use of cell phones, radios, iPods, GPS navigation devices, TV screens, back-up cameras and yet-invented electronic devices, all of which distract even the most agile drivers from watching the road.
These distractions are heaped on others that have competed for drivers' attention for years: food and drink, checking the speedometer or gas gauge, reading roadmaps and road signs, engaging in conversation or just enjoying the scenery.
We can't turn back the clock. Distractions are inevitable. But the Secretary is right to call attention to the problem, educate the public and offer incentives to limit distractions whenever and however possible. The federal government can play a useful role in dictating driving habits and restricting technology use, but that role has to be limited. Ultimately, it is up to the people to act responsibly.
The federal government is launching in cooperation with cell phone companies a federal alerting system, called the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS).
I am concerned that government will go too far in trying to dictate human behavior and hope we fully understand the implications of prohibiting cell phone use so that it does not also produce undesirable and unintended consequences. For example, forcing cell phones into the glove box seems to run counter to federal and local Amber Alerts that now appear on highway traffic signs and urge drivers to call immediately if a missing child or suspicious vehicle is seen.
The federal government is also launching in cooperation with cell phone companies a federal alerting system, called the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS). It is expected to be up and running by the end of next year. The new CMAS-capable phones will receive geo-targeted notification of presidential alerts, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, chemical spills, and evacuation routes. Amber Alerts would be sent to a person’s cell phone, as well. Moreover, the messages would be sent in text format. This is not only inconsistent with Secretary LaHood’s anti-texting initiative, but also offers up another classic example of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing when it comes to the federal bureaucracy.
[CMAS] is not only inconsistent with Secretary LaHood’s anti-texting initiative, but also offers up another classic example of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing when it comes to the federal bureaucracy.
Clearly, technology can be both a curse and a blessing. It has freed up drivers as early model cars required manipulating accelerator and choke levers in the middle of the steering wheel or shifting gears on the steering wheel column. Car radios provide critical traffic information and emergency notices. GPS Navigation devices and iPod connections are here to stay. Soon, most or all devices will be hands free and we will be driving “talking cars.” There are also “heads-up” displays that project your speed or navigation arrows onto your windshield so your eyes don’t have to wander from the road.
But there are legitimate concerns about real prospects of cars being equipped with Facebook, Twitter and television-receiving capabilities, particularly if they are accessible to the driver.
There are now cars capable of automatically reducing speed as it approaches an obstacle or alerting the driver when there is a car approaching in his ‘blind spot’ or if he is swerving out of his traffic lane. The latter probably would be a cheaper safe guard for the public than the placement of ‘rumble strips’ along side every highway.
Hopefully, the Department of Transportation and the FCC will find enough wireless spectrum so drivers can be notified of road conditions. As our infrastructure is being rebuilt and repaired there are stretches of road that can be perilous if the driver is not aware of the changes. Wireless notification could surely be used to let drivers know that the emergency vehicle siren that they hear is coming from the left and not behind as all of us become distracted trying to respond to the sound.
The recent recalls in the news suggest that we also need to know more about electromagnetic interference in automobile computer systems. Any hot rod enthusiast or amateur car mechanic understands the role of electromagnetic interference on car radios. Whenever they “souped up” the coil or spark plug wires, they had to be sure that the dashboard was shielded. The examination of potential car software glitches may reveal the need to shield our microprocessors and magnetic relays from nearby electromagnetic interferences. Here is another area the Department of Transportation and the FCC can inquire and determine what, if anything, needs to be done.
Secretary LaHood needs to press ahead with public education and common sense incentives for state governments, car designers and drivers themselves. But we all hope the Secretary will stop short of attempting to force change in human behavior in a free society where force sometimes doesn’t foil bad behavior, it only encourages it.
More than anything, he should make sure that technology remains a partner in auto safety, not something to be discouraged.
Billy Pitts is a former House Leadership staffer and serves as a member of The Ripon Forum’s editorial board. He served on the FCC CMAS Advisory Group, and was also a member of the Hurricane Katrina Technology Impact Commission.