(Jan. 11) -- One of the
big news items out of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last
week was technology aimed at bringing connectivity to cars: letting
drivers manage streaming music, reply to e-mails, locate points of
interest, look up Wikipedia entries, get restaurant reviews and more
while on the road.
As MSNBC put it: "Consumers are getting so accustomed to their
smartphones performing near-miraculous feats that carmakers have
realized that they need to exploit the features of the devices to put
some of that magic on wheels."
But this magic will come at a huge price of thousands of needless
deaths -- not just drivers under the spell, but also passengers,
pedestrians and people in other cars.
It also points to the nation's disjointed approach to traffic safety,
which forces automakers to stuff cars full of expensive safety
technology and then lets them add distractions that can easily
overwhelm any possible safety benefits.
More than 70 years of scientific research into traffic safety has
confirmed one thing: What is really important to traffic safety is how
motorists drive. The safest driver in the least safe car traveling on
the least safe road is far safer than many drivers in the safest cars
on the road today. And a safe driver not paying attention to driving
quickly becomes a dangerous driver.
We have all driven while listening to the radio waiting to hear, say,
a sports result. A minor incident occurs in the traffic, and later we
realize we have no idea who won the game. Fortunately, we had enough
attention on the road to detect the incident and immediately switch
all our attention to driving.
But, as the task competing with driving becomes more absorbing, we
risk another case of "I just did not see the traffic light."
That's why cell phone use is already a major contributor to highway
deaths. One study finds that a driver using a cell phone is four times
as likely to crash as the same driver not using the cell phone.
Another study estimates that drivers talking on cell phones cause
2,600 fatalities a year.
Cell phones increase risk because some mental capacity must be devoted
to the content of the cell phone conversation, leaving less available
for driving. Eyes might also be diverted from the road, generating
Driving while distracted is not like drunk driving -- it is far worse.
The victims of drunk driving are overwhelmingly the drunk drivers
themselves, and their usually similarly drunk passengers. The majority
of drunk driver deaths occur in single-vehicle crashes in the
"wee small hours" when most people are asleep.
In stark contrast, the victims of distracted driving are in all too
many cases random road users behaving responsibly. Sober drivers, for
example, are responsible for 90 percent of the child pedestrians
killed each year.
Society must begin to regard driving while distracted by electronic
devices as far more serious even than drunk driving, and to develop
sensible regulations to protect the public.
That's not going to happen until the federal government steps up to
its role of helping prevent you from being harmed by others. And
that's not going to happen until it has a strong traffic safety
advocate at the helm.
But right now, the agency responsible for traffic safety -- the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) -- is
leaderless. After almost a year in office, President Barack Obama has
no nominee. Early in his administration, he chose an outstanding
nominee, Charles Hurley, who had been head of Mothers Against Drunk
Driving and understood what was really important in safety. But he
withdrew his nomination in the midst of pressure
from environmental groups because he acknowledged that stricter
fuel economy standards reduce safety.
The auto industry claims that it is well aware of the risks these new
connected devices can cause and is taking steps to minimize them.
But that's not nearly enough.
The federal government has in place hundreds of pointless regulations
whose only effect is to irritate and constrain auto manufacturers and
increase costs to car buyers. NHTSA should make a deal to get rid of
all this nonsense and instead enact some sensible regulations about
what can be on board vehicles. The result would be that many thousands
of lives could be saved.
Having high-tech distracting devices accessible by drivers in moving
vehicles is worse than having a six-pack or an open whiskey bottle in
the front seat. It's time for government regulators to recognize this.
Leonard Evans is an internationally recognized traffic safety
expert who spent 33 years with General Motors Research Laboratories
and is author of "Traffic Safety".
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