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Engineering Controls on Driver Phone Use

The proliferating reports on the fatalities and injuries from cell phoning while driving should persuade all drivers of the danger of this seemingly innocuous multi-tasking behaviour.  But, so far, they have not, even as distracted driving is steadily overtaking impaired driving as a major cause of injury and death.

Distracted driving as a reason of car accidents and personal injuries

Developing a new social norm

Car manufacturers aren’t making stopping this any easier as they add more cell-phone-like features into the latest ‘dash-boards’.  ‘Just put your phone away’ is great advice and foundational for establishing what should become a new social norm.  But we know—from the long struggle to encourage seat-belt wearing and discourage impaired driving—that developing social norms need lots of bolstering. Identification of the extent of the problem is the first step. This involves gathering and publishing statistics, and studying, analyzing, and publishing research about the problem.

In response to the severity of the issue, solutions can almost suggest themselves.  The legal solution involves, first, developing and enacting into law proportional and effective rules, followed by effective enforcement through vigorous policing, adjudication, and publicized penalizing.  Technological solutions may range from failsafe to cautionary but often involve added cost.  Encouraging adoption can be an educational and marketing challenge even when mandated by regulation.  

How to do the right thing

Educational messaging currently consists of victim impact presentations and mass media ‘public-awareness’ campaigns.  According to the National Post newspaper recent series on distracted driving, the latest theories about creating effective PR campaigns say, “messages must be dramatic enough to grab our attention, yet realistic enough that we can picture ourselves in the situations they depict.

Just like the idea of “designated drivers” made it easier to avoid drinking and driving, effective distracted-driving advocacy campaigns must show motorists how to do the right thing.”  One of the coping mechanisms particularly targeted at young people initiated by a television celebrity a few years ago is taking a pledge not to ‘text and drive’.

Technological solutions

The current range of proposed technological solutions is broad, all the way from outfitting all vehicles with a device that would block cell phone usage in the vehicle, to an app that disconnects phones while they are in a vehicle, to a “car mode” default setting on every iPhone, that allows drivers to shut off incoming notifications while still using GPS and music apps.

Software engineers are also said to be working on in-car detection of distracted driving that will prompt a ‘pay-attention’ command while Toyota, on the other hand, is working on a reward-for-restraint approach.

Recently, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued voluntary guidelines for makers of electronic devices, apps, and smartphones to cut down on distraction. Specifically, these guidelines promote “features such as pairing, in which a portable device is linked to a vehicle’s infotainment system, as well as “Driver Mode,” which features a simplified user interface.”  They also call for cell phone functions including playing most video, text entry for messaging or internet browsing, and displaying social media content to be disabled when paired with a vehicle.

Future Road Rules articles will address the existing and proposed legal solutions.

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