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Company argues text messaging is by far the biggest danger to drivers

DailyTech enjoyed an interesting presentation from Ford Motor Company (F) on Thursday.  The topic du jour was driver safety and Ford had plenty of things to say about what kinds of in-car activities really are safe and what ones aren't.

I. Talking Sometimes Prevents Crashes, Texting Dramatically Increases Them

Ford Senior Technical Specialist Louis Tijerina, a 20 year safety industry veteran who co-authored the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's first wireless telecommunications traffic safety report during 4-year stint with the agency, says that his company's exhaustive review of both internal and third party safety information reveals that the blame is often misplaced when it comes to cell phones and driving.

He points to numbers from the U.S. Department of Transportation "Safety Facts" publications, which reveal that although wireless subscriptions have increased exponentially, crashes per 100 million miles travelled have actually declined in recent years.

The punch line, he says is that talking -- be it interacting with passengers, or on the cell phone has a mixed effect on driving safety.  In fact, in the case of drowsy drivers (e.g. truckers), talking on cell phones can actually reduce crashes.

This stands in sharp contrast to past industry (and government) perceptions.  And it seems particularly ironic given that many states and municipalities have implemented strict regulations where if you get caught talking on your cell phone while driving, you get a ticket.  If the studies Ford pointed to are accurate, these kinds of laws may actually increase accidents among drowsy drivers.

Mr. Tijerina says that evidence shows that so-called "cognitive distractions" aren't much of an issue, but physical distractions are.  Some physical distractions -- such as eating, adjusting instruments, putting a CD in your entertainment system -- are relatively low risk.  However, by far the most risky behavior is texting while driving.  Ford's compiled numbers show that texting while driving increases crash likelihood 23 times or more.

Texting while driving
While talking on the phone can reduce accidents for drowsy drivers, texting can increase accident rates up to twenty-three fold. [Source: Streets Blog]

Where past studies may have gone wrong is lumping texting and talking on cell phones together, when in fact these two behaviors have radically different impacts on the driver's danger level.

He comments, "Eyes on the road, hands on the wheel is not just an advertising slogan, it's summarizing research."

II. Ford Plugs Sync as the Ultimate Safety Feature

He says that the best case scenario is to have a hands free system which still allows you to engage others in coversation, keeping your mind active.  Of course this is an issue Ford may be a bit partisan on -- because its Sync provides just such a system.

"Many argue that there's no difference between hand-held versus hands free systems," says Mr. Tijerina, "That is patently incorrect.  There are advantages to voice-controlled interfaces."

He says that Ford realizes that some physical distractions -- such as interaction with a touch panel are inevitable, so it tries to minimize their risks.  Ford points to its participation in the Driver Focus-Telematics Working Group [PDF], which has published preliminary standards governing in-car touch panels.  

Those standards state that panels must be within 30 degrees of the road viewing angle (i.e. high up on the dashboard) and that interactions with the device must only last for spurts of 2 seconds or less.  Ford says its Sync system adheres to these guidelines.  For actions that take more than a "single eye glance" (2 sec.) Ford locks users out of the functionality, while driving.  Examples of such forbidden exercises include manual navigation destination entry, keyboard entry, using the movie player, and using built-in inner browsing.

Sync Safety
Ford bills Sync the ultimate safety feature, as it replaces physical distractions with cognitive exercises (i.e. voice commands). [Source: Ford]

If there's one take home message from Ford's presentation, it's that some of things we think might be distracting aren't really that bad -- or even can sometimes be a good thing.  That's a lesson that the government should bear in mind when deciding what kinds of rules and regulations to slap on motorists.  

Talking on your cell phone? That's not so bad.  Just don't send any text messages.

Interestingly, Mr. Tijerina says that there hasn't been much research into whether emailing while driving poses as much of a distraciton as texting.  Common sense would say so.  One can't help but wonder if this is where the recent correlation between service outages on Research in Motion, Ltd.'s (TSE:RIM) BlackBerry smartphones and reduced accident rates arises.

Updated Thur. 10/27/2011 5:50 p.m.:
To clarify, while ineffectiveness of cell phone talking bans seemed a natural conclusion to draw from the numbers Ford presented, Ford has not formally come out against a voice ban.  In fact, it supports bans on texting and on holding handsets.

That said, Ford staff agrees that the information that talking while driving can actually reduce accidents is an interesting phenomena and should definitely be considered further.

Source: Ford

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By Ryrod on 10/28/2011 3:07:05 PM , Rating: 2
I wouldn't say officers incorrectly enforce text/phone laws. For all they know, it could be a GPS device, MP3 player, or they aren't sure.

I've talked to many police officers, including supervisors (like sergeants and lieutenants) who feel that cell phone laws are useless and by their demeanor towards the law, encourage officers to treat it solely as a secondary offense. So unless you are stupid enough to be on your phone when you are pulled over for speeding (or a similar primary offense), more often than not you are not going to be cited.

Unless the driver is operating the vehicle erratically, there isn't much reason to pull the person over. It's the same thing with speeding - they might not pull someone over for going 63 in a 55, but if someone is swerving all over the place, then they will.

The problem that I have with this kind of approach is that speeding is often governed by a "rule of reason," but cell phone usage is not. Cell phone laws are cut and dry, either you were using a cell phone or not. It's not like speeding where officers will say that driving 1-6mph over is reasonable, but 7+ is not.

I've seen many cases (yes, I know anecdotal evidence) where officers see people with a phone to their ear or texting on the phone, but choose not to do anything likely because that driver is not speeding or swerving between lanes. That is not how these laws were written (except in some states treating it as a secondary offense) and it is not how they should be enforced.

Well, the bans don't work because they are nearly impossible to enforce.

People said the same thing about seat belt laws when they were first introduced. Cell phone laws are and should be treated more like seat belt laws. Seat belts are almost as difficult to see as cell phones, but we still enforce seat belt laws. Officers just need to look for the signs of phone usage and texting like they would any other violation. If someone is holding their arm at a 90 degree angle with their hand near where their ear would be, then they are likely talking on the cell phone and the officer should investigate.

If an officer pulls you over for using your cell phone, how does he prove you were talking or texting? You could easily delete your call history or sent text messages.

He proves it the same way that he proves speeding violations, by testifying as to what he saw. Most laser and radar guns do not log speed violations and therefore, cannot be introduced as evidence. Often what it comes down to is what the officer saw when the violation occurred, such as the description of the driver, the speed readout on the gun, the make and model of the vehicle, etc. An officer is just as capable of saying, "Yes, I saw the phone in the defendant's hands and he was pressing buttons on the phone," as he can say "Yes, I saw the defendant driving down the road and the readout on my gun pointed at his license plate said 88mph."

Now I'm not saying that officers are lazy or incompetent, because I know a great deal of officers who do excellent work and put their lives on the line every day. However, I think the culture is what hurts the effectiveness of cell phone bans more than anything else. If we changed the enforcement culture surrounding cell phone laws, we might see more enforcement and less distracted drivers on the road.

By cjohnson2136 on 10/28/2011 4:07:28 PM , Rating: 2

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