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Is it time for the US government to disable cellphones in cars?

Is it time for the US government to disable cellphones in cars?


Researchers say current laws don't do enough to combat distracted driving

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Distracted driving continues to pose a major safety risk across the United States, and it's a problem that can't be solved through legislation alone. That's the argument a pair of researchers from West Virginia University made earlier this month, in an essay published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

According to co-author Dr. Jeffrey Coben, the issue stems from two converging phenomena: a proliferation of mobile technology that has only amplified the risks associated with calling or texting while driving, and state-legislated bans that, while well-intentioned, remain difficult to enforce. Coben's proposed solution? In-car technology that would render cellphones inoperable.

"banning drunk driving without using breathalyzers."

Nearly 40 states have already implemented hard bans on texting while driving, while another ten have outlawed talking on the phone from behind the wheel. Recent data, however, suggest that these measures haven't had much of an impact. As Coben and co-author Dr. Motao Zhu point out, distracted driving-related fatalities increased by 22 percent between 2005 and 2009, despite an overall decrease in crash-related deaths. The authors also point to a recent study from the University of North Texas, which found that increased texting volumes alone resulted in an additional 16,000 crash-related fatalities between 2001 and 2007.

In a survey, Coben and Zhu found that 40 percent of drivers continue to use their cellphones while driving, with 15 percent admitting to texting from behind the wheel. Given that these figures were self-reported, Coben's results likely underestimate the true prevalence of distracted driving.

That cellphones increase risks to driver safety is a widely accepted truth; according to Coben, talking while driving increases that risk by a factor of six, while texting increases it by a factor of 23. The question, though, is whether legal bans are strong enough to mitigate this risk.

"Simply banning handheld cell phone use while driving, without providing law enforcement with an easy method of detecting such use, is akin to banning drunk driving without using breathalyzers or sobriety tests to detect violators," he writes.

"we haven't focused enough on engineering and technology."

Coben isn't alone in his call for stricter enforcement. Police in Kentucky, for instance, say their state's ban on texting while driving has proven difficult to implement, largely because current technology has outpaced the law. As the Courrier-Journal reports, Kentucky's current legislation explicitly addresses text messaging, but makes no mention of web browsing, social media, or any other features included on most smartphones.

Proving that a driver was actually texting, moreover, often requires prosecutors to subpoena a suspect's phone records — an onerous task to pursue in the name of a mere traffic violation. Even if these records were obtained, they wouldn't guarantee proof of criminal behavior, since many users now text through third-party apps such as WhatsApp or Viber, which circumvent traditional texting networks.

As a result, Kentucky prosecutors are calling for stricter legislation and punishments, but Coben thinks this is only part of the solution. "Legislation is important, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to be sufficient," he said in an interview with JAMA.

"To this point, we have focused primarily on education and legislation, and we haven't focused enough on engineering and technology to reduce the use of handheld devices," he continued.

"In this era of smartphones and smart cars, it is time to be smarter about keeping them apart from one another."

In Coben's view, in-car texting should be treated in the same way that airbags or antilock brakes address other safety hazards — that is, through built-in technologies. Coben and Zhu acknowledge that hands-free technologies could provide a viable middle ground between safety and convenience, but until these devices are proven safe, they think the US government should mandate technology that would automatically disable cellphones whenever a car is in motion.

"The federal government should enact stringent new safety standards that require all handheld devices to be rendered inoperable when the motor vehicle is in motion," the authors write. "Failure to act in this manner will result in the continued loss of thousands of lives each year to this preventable public safety hazard. In this era of smartphones and smart cars, it is time to be smarter about keeping them apart from one another."

Thus far, the US has yet to implement a federal law on distracted driving (save for a ban for truckers and bus drivers), though in-car jamming technology has been under discussion. In 2010, US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said the government was examining cellphone jammers and scramblers as a possible solution to distracted driving, though a Department of Transportation spokesperson later downplayed LaHood's statements.

The National Transportation Security Board made a similar call for blanket federal enforcement in 2011, when it called for electronics manufacturers to create devices that would "disable the functions of portable electronic devices within reach of the driver when a vehicle is in motion," while allowing smartphones to automatically activate in case of emergency.

Companies like Scosche have recently launched devices capable of blocking cellphones in moving cars, but it remains unclear whether the government will choose to mandate such technology anytime soon. Last year, the FCC responded to the growing interest in cellphone jammers with a document reminding users that such devices remain illegal under federal law.

Concerns over emergency call capabilities and civil liberties will likely loom large over any potential legislation on the national level, but Coben insists that with fatalities on the rise and smartphone usage continuing to spread, the government needs to take action. "This is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed immediately," he said.