Commentary

If the U.S. wants to solve distracted driving, it must create a new unit of government: The Bureau of Consumer Double Standards.

That’s because most driver’s think distraction is someone else’s problem – not theirs – and so far laws, technology and education have not been successful in changing this attitude. The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. reports that in 2009, 5,474 people were killed in crashes involving distracted driving in the U.S. and an additional 448,000 were injured.

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has declared driver distraction “an epidemic,” and NHTSA and many state law makers have made curbing the act of texting while driving a top priority. Politicos are patting themselves on the back for enacting a flurry of rules and laws forbidding texting. They say public awareness programs and enforcement efforts already are paying off. But the supporting data are suspect.

NHTSA says strict enforcement of cell-phone bans in Hartford, CT, and Syracuse, NY, caused driver texting and hand-held cell phone use to plummet 68% and 56%, respectively.

But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says the frequency of collision claims actually has risen 4% in Connecticut, which has a state wide ban on cell phone use while driving.

Paul Green, research professor for the Driver Interface Group at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, says driver distraction is badly misunderstood, and new metrics for measuring driver interference are needed. Instead of being lumped into one category, these issues should be broken into subcategories including distraction, driver overload and subtasks, Green says.

The potential for driver interference now is identified and evaluated according to tasks, such as smoking a cigarette or listening to music. What really needs to be studied are the visual, auditory, cognitive and psychomotor demands of subtasks, he says.

For instance, smoking a cigarette while driving causes little interference, but the subtasks involved with opening a pack and lighting a new cigarette have higher potential for creating a problem.

Listening to music in a vehicle using a Bluetooth connection with a mobile device is not very distracting, but taking eyes off the road to scroll through long playlists can be dangerous. “We need to develop better ways to quantify workload,” Green says.

He says potentially distracting technology is moving faster than law makers’ ability to regulate.

While many new laws focus specifically on texting, smart phones offer the capability to surf the Internet, play video games and analyze spreadsheets while driving. Coming soon are video cell phone calls, which promise even more distraction, Green says.

Auto makers are trying to limit distraction by designing human-machine interfaces that are simpler to use. HMIs still need improvement, but they are getting better.

Ford, Mercedes and other auto makers also are spending millions to sponsor safe-driving classes for teenagers to supplement regular high-school driver-education classes.

These classes may help. A poll released in March by the DOT shows fewer than one in three drivers under age 30 considers it dangerous to use a handheld phone while driving. But just about every other poll shows an overwhelming majority of drivers say they understand the risks of texting and using a cell phone while driving, but do it anyway. They just don’t get it.

The auto industry can meet new safety standards on its own, but eliminating driver distraction by curbing the hypocrisy and double standards of consumers is a job only government can stomach.