Is Technology Keeping Us Safer on the Roads or Steering Us in the Wrong Direction?

24 February 2011

According to a study released just a few days ago from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance, the impact of teen driver crashes extends far beyond teen drivers’ families and friends. In 2008, more than half a million people were involved in crashes where a teen driver was behind the wheel. More than 40,000 were injured, and nearly 30 percent of those who died in the crashes were not in cars driven by teens.

Epidemic of Distracted Driving
“Distracted driving is an epidemic,” says Ray LaHood, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. “ Texting and talking on cell phones may feel like second nature to a tech-savvy generation, but the truth is, no one can talk or text while driving safely.” It is hard to miss the fact that Secretary LaHood has spoken freely on this topic. He claims that teen drivers are some of the most vulnerable drivers on the road due to inexperience, and adding cell phones to the mix only compounds the dangers to everyone.

His stand may have led to many bans on texting and driving, along with handheld cell use while driving in several states. Currently, 30 U.S. states have now banned texting while driving, including 10 in 2010.

There are now eight states—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington—plus Washington, D.C. and the Virgin Islands that prohibit all drivers from using any handheld cell phones while driving. Many of these states that don’t have bans on texting or cell phone use do have limitations on novice drivers.

But there are no states that ban the use of hands-free phone use—for instance, using a Bluetooth connected phone to an in-vehicle connectivity system. LaHood has also stated that using hands-free phones and/or other infotainment found in many newer cars can be very distracting as well. If there are so many interested parties in this debate, where does that leave the rest of us? And what can be done or what is being done to curb this devastating behavior?

OEMs Address the Problem
While LaHood is claiming that much of the connectivity in cars today can be distracting, original equipment manufacturers (OEM) continue to ramp up their offerings with Wi-Fi, off-board point-of-interest (POI) searches, Bluetooth, and voice-based hands-free texting, Facebook updates and more.

LaHood has been meeting with executives of BMW, Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, Nissan, Toyota and other OEMs to discuss solutions to this increasingly complex situation.

Many automakers already offer hands-free options in their vehicles. In fact, according to IHS iSuppli data, nearly 95 percent of the new vehicles sold for model year 2011 in the United States will have some Bluetooth integration available, up from only 50 percent in 2008. Major players in this increase were GM, Ford, Hyundai and Toyota.

IHS sees advanced connectivity and application integration growing as well. This includes some application or smart phone integration with content from various providers like Pandora, Twitter, Facebook, Bing, Google, Stitcher, iheartradio and many more. In fact, forecasts show application or cloud content integration being available

in nearly 25 percent of new models for model year 2012, with a staggering increase occurring in the near future. Again, the product offensive will be led by the likes of GM, Ford, Toyota and BMW, among others.

Technology has gotten to a point where something like a Facebook update or a Tweet can be done with eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, a safe alternative to looking at the display screen. However, there are many that feel the cognitive distraction of this interaction will be an issue. There is not enough research on the subject yet toward a definitive conclusion.

Drivers Have a Voice, Too
A survey conducted by the AAA Foundation in October of 2010 explained that 52 percent of drivers in the survey felt less safe than they did five years ago, which is a 17 percent increase from the same time a year earlier. Forty percent of these drivers cited cell phones, texting and distracted drivers as the biggest reason they feel unsafe.

Despite advances having been made, technology and connectivity in the car do not completely take the place of good driving practices, personal responsibility and parental supervision, experts say. And thanks to LaHood and many outspoken celebrities, the view that distracted driving poses no real danger is changing.

Read More > IHS iSuppli’s Location-Aware Portable Device

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