Published August 6, 2013, Los Angeles Daily Journal – On average, 14 people die in the U.S. every day as a result of distracted driving, with scores more seriously injured and sentenced to a life term of debilitating injuries. Think for a moment about the tens of thousands of people who are living their life confined to a wheelchair, or the legions of people who have had to bury a loved one because of distracted driving, and then try to pretend that it is not an epidemic of national proportion.
Initially, the problem was cell phone use – a problem that many states tried to remedy with bans on hand-held devices. Today, 39 states have outlawed hand-held devices (California being one of them), but in truth this does little to rectify the problem. The general consensus among the scientific community is that there is a negligible difference between talking on a cell phone with and without a hands-free device; it is just plain dangerous no matter how it is used.
This should be a concern to all. The National Safety Council, a non-profit organization that was chartered by Congress in 1913, estimates that at any given moment, 9 percent of drivers on U.S. highways are talking on their cell phones. This, the agency estimates, results in 1.1 million crashes every year.
Now, overlay the issue of cell phone use with texting and driving. The U.S. has seen an enormous increase in text messaging over the past five years. For the calendar year 2007, there were 363 billion text messages sent in the U.S.; by 2012, that number had grown to 2.2 trillion. It would be naïve to think that this increase has not made its way into the automobile, and that the problem will not further escalate.
It is no surprise that the biggest users of text messaging are the younger generation – but what’s concerning is that this generation drives, and that they don’t stay young forever. You may be surprised, or even downright shocked, to learn just how prolific texting has become for Generation Y. In a study performed by Experian Marketing Services, a person between the ages of 18 and 24 sends and receives an average of 3,853 texts per month.
As these drivers age, and bring their technology habits with them, we will become a driving population that is more accustomed to living life with the smart phone in one hand, and everything else in the other. Given this, it should not be overly surprising to learn that the National Safety Council estimates that at any given time, 1.3 percent of the driving public is texting while driving.
Yet, amazingly, some states still don’t get it. There are nine states that have do not have a ban on texting while driving, and there are six states – New Mexico, Montana, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Missouri and South Carolina – that have no limitation whatsoever on what drivers can do with their cell phone behind the wheel. This means that in these states, it is perfectly acceptable for a school bus driver to be texting while driving, or a truck driver to be surfing the web while speeding down the highway.
So serious is the problem that in December 2011, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued a recommendation that all 50 states ban any form of cell phone use while driving, even with a hands free device. The recommendation also urges states to implement harsh penalties for violation of the law. However, because the ability to regulate driver behavior is left to the states, we are left with a quilt-work of legislation – and so far every state has ignored the NTSB recommendation to ban cell phones altogether.
The automotive industry’s response to the crisis has been to create a platform of advanced technology designed to take the cell phone out of the hand. Drivers can now talk on their cell phone through a car’s Bluetooth device, text friends through speech-to-text technology, and post messages on Facebook through voice recognition. Automakers say that the systems not only address safety concerns, but also cater to consumers who want to stay connected while driving.
Yet a June 2013 study by David Strayer, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah, found that infotainment and voice recognition systems actually exacerbate the distracted driver problem, and are far more dangerous than the devices they are trying to replace. While a hand-held cell phone will take a driver’s hand off the wheel, voice-activated systems take a driver’s mind off the road.
The study found that voice recognition and speech-to-text systems require substantial cognitive output. Unlike talking with a person, who can interrupt and ask for clarification, use of voice recognition systems require the driver to layout and think through the command. While the task by itself is not overly difficult, the human brain is not able to engage in the function without experiencing a deficit in the attention needed for driving.
According to David Strayer’s study, the impairment created by voice recognition and speech-to-text systems is far more severe than that of having a 0.08 blood-alcohol level, the legal standard for intoxication across the country. Yet, automakers are far from slowing their advancement of these systems. Electronics consulting firm IMS Research reports that by 2019, more than half of all new cars will integrate some type of voice recognition into their systems.
What’s worse, the infotainment systems themselves are becoming increasingly complex. To name but a few, Audi’s premium “Connect” service provides drivers with a Google Earth navigation experience, while Tesla allows its drivers to surf the web on the car’s beautiful 17 inch touchscreen monitor while driving.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has urged automakers to voluntarily limit the technology applications in their vehicles, but the arms race has already begun. Manufacturers are feverishly packing their cars with all the cutting edge technology they can muster, all in the hope of luring consumers to their showrooms and moving more iron. Unfortunately, we will likely have to experience a national tragedy that will sober us all, before we take the responsible and necessary step of focusing more on driver safety and less on driver entertainment.