The US Department of Transportation is examining the possibility of mandating the introduction of technology that would disable mobile telephony in moving vehicles. Martyn Warwick reports.
Over the past year the US authorities have come down hard on drivers convicted of killing or injuring people as a result of accidents that happened whist they were making mobile calls from moving vehicles.
Now though the Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, says his organisation is looking at ways to ensure that, in future, drivers won't be able to make any such calls. He says, "There's a lot of technology out there that can disable phones and we're looking at that."
Let there be no doubt about it, Ray LaHood is on a mission. He believes motorists are distracted by any use of mobile phones while driving, (and that includes hands-free calling as well as the more obvious texting which has already been proven to be a killer) and his passionate campaign against texting and making calls on the move has already led to the imposition of legal restrictions in 30 states. He also believes that in-vehicle information and entertainment systems, such as GPS and on-board TVs and DVD players are also "potentially lethal cognitive distractions."
Of course the vested interests bound together in the US Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a 12-member Washington DC pressure group representing the likes of BMW, Chrysler, Daimler, Ford, GM, Porsche, Toyota and Volkswagen, are determined to ensure in-vehicle wireless links are not prohibited.
A spokesperson for the Alliance said.“Our feeling is it’s a matter of balancing what we know people are going to do anyway with what technology can help them do safer in a vehicle.
We know that people are going to have conversations and look at maps and listen to music in a vehicle.”
And then, of course, there's the money - or the potential loss of it as far as US mobile operators are concerned. The wireless industry association, the CTIA, says that the sector generated US$152 billion in revenue last year from 2.3 trillion minutes of mobile usage. Understandably, none of the mobile service providers want to lose a cent of that.
However, figures from the Department of Transportation show that deaths in crashes that have been found to be directly attributable to distraction caused by texting and making or taking voice calls whilst driving are increasing.
Ray LaHood says that in 2009 the number of deaths attributable to driver distraction caused by in-vehicle comms systems (hands-free or not) was 5,474; that's 16 per cent of all road fatalities. Some 330,000 are injured for the same reasons. He added that at any any given moment some 800,000 Americans are texting, making calls, or using a handheld mobile device while driving
In response, and whilst admitting that there is a big problem, US mobile operators oppose suggestions that signal scrambling technology be built-into vehicles, calling it far too much of a "blunt instrument" - which undoubtedly it would be.
Meanwhile, Olivia Adair, a spokeswoman for the DoT has added to the debate by saying the Department is focusing on the fraught issue of the use of mobiles in vehicles by drivers when on the move by "raising awareness, getting good laws on the books, stepping up enforcement, and most importantly, taking personal responsibility."
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