Technology, not laws, called key to reducing distracted driving

Across the country, states are contemplating tightening laws covering distracted driving, but safety experts and activists say enforcement only goes so far and that technology is key.

Legislation varies from state to state, with most now banning texting while driving, but many have not yet made holding a handset to make a call illegal.

Some states, such as Washington, have moved even further, with legislation warning drivers they could be fined following a collision if they are found to have been eating or drinking behind a wheel.

Kara Macek, of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), which represents state highway safety officers, said there are challenging issues for law enforcement, particularly when it comes to enforcing the law in those states that still allow drivers to hold hand-held devices.

The  GHSA is a membership organization charged with implementing federal grant programs to address driver behavior.

"With state legislation on distracted driving, it is interesting because it is a relatively young field in terms of safety because it was not popping up until 15 years ago," Macek told Mega Dealer News.

"We do not track all legislation, but almost every state has enacted a texting ban," she said. "They go at least that far."

But it is not necessarily far enough, Macek said, because using a cellphone and making a call still adds a level of distraction, whether or not it's a hands-free device.

Fifteen states have bans on drivers holding cellphones. And that is challenging for the police in the other states because sometimes they cannot know whether a driver is texting or on the phone, Macek said. 

To ban the use of cellphones for calls is challenging politically as it still is "culturally acceptable," Macek said, noting that many policymakers engage in the practice themselves. 

Many, of not most, drivers no longer hold their phones but use various technologies to make calls, look at texts, and even check out websites. 

The Distracted Driving Foundation (DDFN) was founded on the premise that mobile phone carriers and car makers should put technology in all phones and automobiles that blocks display-intensive phones from being in easy view of drivers when the vehicle is moving. 

"Laws limiting driver behavior enforced by police observation are not enough," the organization says on its website. "They create an unnecessarily unpleasant driving experience for drivers and make inefficient use of police resources. This problem is caused by technology and should be solved by further improvements to the technology." 

It is up to cellphone companies, auto manufacturers and lawmakers, whether state or federal, to come up with and how to pay for this technology, according to Jeff Haley, acting executive director of DDFN.

The GHSA largely stays away from commenting on whether auto companies should be more proactive in making sure technology that reduces the chances of potentially fatal collisions is more widely introduced.

"We do not get into that policy as we are charged with addressing driver behaviour," Macek said. 

But she added, "We are now used to be connected. ... It is hard because it is ingrained in people's habits."

In Washington state, the legislation does not bar a driver from eating or drinking while driving. But if another offense has been detected, or there is a collision, and law enforcement can directly link those to being distracted, then a driver can be subject to a fine.

It gives police much discretion and latitude to use their own judgment, said Macek, adding that she believes the focus is on raising public awareness rather than attempting to penalize.

"Driving is a big responsibility, and the most important thing is for the driver to focus on the driving," she added.

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Organizations in this story

Governors Highway Safety Association 44 N. Capitol Street, NW, Suite 722, Washington DC 20001-1534