Creating a National Distracted Driving Debate

Carl Weinschenk

There is a huge amount of political intrigue surrounding the gun debate in general and the background check provisions in particular. Whether the basic approach backed by a vast majority of Americans – maintain people’s right to arms but do far more to keep them out of the hands of criminals, the mentally ill and kids – is eventually implemented still is far from settled.

It’s good that we finally are having that debate. However, it’s a sign of something – human foibles, the nature of our society or a combination of both – that so much less attention is being paid to a threat that is similar in nature and, arguably, even more pernicious.

Distracted driving seems to be getting a lot of lip service and little concrete action. The contours of the debate are similar. A perfectly safe and legal device, when used incorrectly, poses a danger to the user and those around him or her. There is technology and simple steps – such as mandated education and draconian penalties -- that would reduce the danger significantly.

Business should be concerned about this issue for several reasons. At the highest level, businesses are comprised of people and their fates therefore are interdependent. (This is what Mitt Romney really was trying to say, though he paid a price for hopelessly mangling the wording). Therefore, businesses have an obligation to do the right thing. Moreover, mobile fleets are not immune to the temptations of distracted driving. There undoubtedly are legal ramifications for the company if an on-duty worker has an accident due to distracted driving.

The problem is big. The Cohen Children’s Medical Center, which is in New Hyde Park, NY, has released data indicating that more than 3,000 teens die annually from distracted driving. That, the story said, compares to 2,700 who die from drinking and driving. The story said that distracted drivers are 23 times more likely to crash than those with both eyes on the road.

Of course, the first step in assessing a problem is to quantify it. According to another report released this week, that isn’t happening. The National Safety Council has analyzed the numbers, and the inescapable conclusion is that reporting procedures for distracted driving accidents are inconsistent and ineffective.

The report, which was partially funded by Nationwide Mutual Insurance, looked at 180 fatal crashes from 2009 to 2011 in which evidence pointed to cell phone involvement. Only 52 percent of the 2011 accidents were coded accordingly. The story is full of examples of the reporting falling short. Here is one, as reported by eWeek:

The report also brings up large differences in the number of cell phone distraction fatal crashes reported by states. For instance, in 2011, Tennessee reported 93 fatal crashes that involved cell phone use, but New York, a state with a much larger population, reported only one. Texas reported 40, but its neighboring state Louisiana reported none.

There always is a lag in such reports. In terms of the high profile of distracted driving, 2011 is a long time ago and things may have changed. Still, the results are troubling.


As in the gun debate, there are solutions at hand. Education of course, is key. There also are technical approaches. (This is where the IT/telecom and gun control debates overlap. Mandating common fingerprint security sensors on firearms would reduce the accidental shooting problem tremendously.)

Another example of a common sense and presumably easy-to-implement solution is the Dock-n-Lock. The system is simple and clever: A lockable compartment is placed within the vehicle and a smart tag is placed on the device. The vehicle only will start if the smart tag reports that the device is in the compartment -- which has to report in as locked.

There certainly are other approaches. Here is a list of resources from the Federal Communications Commission.

Controlling guns is a huge challenge. It is good to see that it is being addressed, albeit in the fits and starts manner that characterizes American democracy. It is vital that distracted driving get the same treatment – and more than the lip service it now receives. Lives depend on it.



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