Friday, February 19, 2010

Making That Call While Driving

The pundits have made it clear that speaking on your cell phone while driving is dangerous to not only the user, but those around them. However, have they really identified the issue or merely created a smokescreen to the real issue…driver distraction? While I wouldn't advocate for talking on the phone while driving, I do wonder if perhaps we're trying to piece-meal legislation aimed at reducing driver distractions. With today's technologies, we have more resources at our fingertips, not to mention well-laid out road networks aimed at creating the easiest way to get from point A to point B.

The University of Illinois and Northwestern University in Illinois completed a study on the impact of legislation prohibiting hand-held cell phone use while driving. Their findings included several key points, including:

  • Cell phone subscribers in the US have skyrocketed from 97 million in June 200 to a whopping 267 million as of November 2008.
  • As reported in USA Today, approximately 11% of the population used a cell phone while driving at some point during their day.
  • Studies indicated that the average call was 4.5 minutes.
  • From 1994 to 2004, cell phone subscribers increased by 655%.
  • The number of minutes-of-use increased 3,600%.
  • Automobile accident rates dropped by around 5% over the same time period.
  • Driver distraction is purported to be the cause of nearly 80% of automobile accidents and 65% of near-accidents.
  • In 2006, these distractions caused 2,600 deaths, 330,000 moderate to critical injuries, and 1,500,000 instances of property damage annually in the USA.
  • Cell phones or car phones have been around for nearly 50 years…yep, that long. Just think of the classic Charlie's Angels or McMillan & Wife shows where they picked up the 5-odd pound phone in the car to make that all important call.

Using a phone while driving encompasses no less than three tasks on the user: locating or glancing at the phone; reaching for and dialling; and of course talking. All of these encumbrances affect either the attentiveness of the driver, or the driver's focus on the road. Investigations into whether cell phones actually contribute to a driver's inability to function correctly have been done predominately through simulators, tests, questionnaires, surveys, and observations.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the USA completed a study in 2006 that concluded "…drivers talking or listening to a wireless device are no more likely to be involved in an accident or near-accident, than those not involved in such activities." In fact, of all the 'bans' on cell-phone use, not one jurisdiction has implemented a complete ban on all types of cell phones (hand-held or hands-free).With the introduction of Bluetooth technology which enables a user to provide voice-command interface with between the user and their phone have failed to demonstrate significant reductions of risk.

Here's another piece of statistical data worth chatting about: "…increased cell phone use does not translate into increased automobile accident rates. In particular, there has been an exponential growth in the number of cell phone subscribers from the late-1980s, while automobile accident rates in the US during this same time period have remained at a fairly constant level." By February 2007, sixteen States published data on accidents caused by cell-phone use while driving, and that number represented less than 1% of automobile accidents. Another question comes into play on how enforceable a cell phone ban can be executed; as an example, in New York prior to the ban there was an estimated 2.3% user rate (while driving) which fell to 1.1% after the ban, only to rebound back up to 2.1% a year later.

In order to provide full Legislative measures aimed at reducing automobile accidents, then they're going to need to look beyond one distraction opportunity. One could expect that items like DVDs in vehicles which are visible to other drivers could be argued as an unnecessary distraction; or how about legislating cameras to support going in reverse; or banning conversations with your spouse…because we all know how distracting that can be sometimes. So let's not just look at one distraction available to drivers…let's look at the whole menu, and work with the drivers on how to mitigate those opportunities.

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