A solution needed NOW to keep drivers from texting

Photo of a texting driverBy Max Donath, director of the Roadway Safety Institute and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota

Matt Richtel of the New York Times has been documenting the love fest between the driver and their cell phone for quite some time. Two of his recent articles, “A Texting Driver’s Education” and “Trying to Hit the Brake on Texting while Driving” are particularly compelling. He quotes cognitive psychologist David Strayer and others about the addictive properties of instant gratification that make phones difficult for anyone to resist. “It’s in our DNA,” he says. The result is a texting-while-driving epidemic, particularly affecting teenagers.

The second article, while not surprising, is more disturbing. The article describes a novel technology developed by Scott Tibbitts, which stops a text or call from getting to your phone, only if you are the driver. This isn’t just talk. American Family Insurance invested $1 million in Tibbitts’ company, Katasi. Sprint was impressed enough to provided access to their cellular network. But the executive suite at Sprint subsequently got cold feet and couldn’t overcome their concerns about profits, liability, and “protecting the brand of a $35 billion company.”

My purpose is not to beat up on Sprint alone. We need the industry, including the vehicle manufacturers, to work together to create a system that prevents the driver and only the driver from texting. Action to deal with distracted driving and smartphone and other mobile technologies is needed now. If the wireless industry can’t get their act together to make this system a reality, then the U.S. Department of Transportation should step in. There is no doubt that a workable, deployable solution is possible.

Two points are in order: (1) There are existing cooperative agreement mechanisms for industry to work together, and (2) Solutions need not take decades to work out.

One model for a workable cooperative agreement is the Collision Avoidance Metrics Partnership or CAMP. It was CAMP that developed and tested much of the technology that formed the basis of what is now called Connected Vehicles (CV). Wireless communications and lane-level location technology that form the basis of CV applications allow vehicles to immediately know about each other, even if around the corner, thus facilitating automated collision avoidance. This past spring, the USDOT announced their intention to require onboard CV technology that enables vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) safety “messaging” in future vehicle models. This official notice “only” took 13 years after a cooperative agreement between the USDOT and several automotive manufacturers was originally established.

The safety benefits of the Connected Vehicles Program, around which there has been so much recent media attention, will not be realized for many years to come. Nevertheless, in the long run, CV technology will certainly help reduce crashes associated with distraction (and our other human limitations).

In the meantime, we need to act now to deal with smartphone-related distracted driving.

We need the cellular providers to work out a cooperative agreement with each other and with the automotive industry that will allow them to support, develop, and evaluate pre-competitive enabling technologies that will prevent the vehicle driver, and only the driver, from texting (or playing with their smartphone) while driving. This is not rocket science, as Tibbitts has shown. We cannot focus on profits or concerns about liability when it comes to saving lives.

In a 2009 article “Promoting the Car Phone, Despite Risks,” Matt Richtel reviewed the history of cell phone use in cars. In the ‘60s, Martin Cooper, who developed the first portable cell phone, recalled testifying before a Michigan state commission that “there should be a lock on the dial so that you couldn’t dial while driving.” Richtel also quoted Steve Largent, then head of CTIA, the organization representing the wireless communications industry. “This was never something we anticipated,” he said, adding that distracted driving is a growing threat now that more than 90 percent of Americans have cell phones. “The reality of distracted driving has become more apparent to all of us.”

At the University of Minnesota, we now are completing a study of 300 novice teenage drivers across rural Minnesota. Preliminary analysis of the data indicates that smartphone apps, if appropriately designed, can be effective in reducing speeding and other common risky driving behaviors associated with teens.

Our research, however, is only a step toward driving safety. We need the industry, including the vehicle manufacturers, to work together to prevent the driver (and not others in the vehicle) from texting. We know that a workable, deployable solution is possible—not in the decades that it took, and will take, to get Connected Vehicles universally deployed, but in one “smartphone generation.”

“Would people use it?” should not be a consideration. The airbag is not an option that the car buyer gets to chose. We should not get bogged down in worrying about those who will find a work-around.

Wasn’t it way back when that Voltaire said: ‘Perfect is the enemy of the good’?


Posted in Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), Intelligent vehicles, Safety, Technology

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