Everyone knows the dangers of distracted driving. But it can be a test of willpower to keep a cell phone out of hand and out of mind while driving. It's true that drivers of all ages indulge in this risky behavior, but young people are the more common offenders. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 16 percent of all distracted driving crashes involve drivers under the age of 20. In 2011, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver. An estimated 387,000 people were injured.
Technology triggered the problem (or at the very least, made it worse), and now it's being offered as a solution. Companies have developed products that prohibit or limit a driver's ability to use a phone while driving, attracting the interest of parents who are eager to safeguard newly licensed teen drivers. But is technology really the answer to distracted driving? Or is it akin to keeping kids in a fenced yard instead of teaching them how to safely cross the street? Here's a closer look at the tech-versus-teach controversy.
Technological Solutions on the Rise
The problem of distracted driving has occupied the mind of many engineers, including eager entrepreneurs, executives at cell phone companies and top officials at auto manufacturers. Numerous solutions have hit the market, from apps to factory-installed devices.
Most common are temporary "blocking" devices that silence incoming calls and texts and prevent drivers from having any interaction on their phones aside from GPS navigation and calls to 911.
Other solutions, such as Origosafe require that the phone remain locked in a dock before the driver can start the engine. After that, the driver can only use the phone via its Bluetooth connectivity.
Ford Motor Co. joined the crusade with its MyKey technology, which has been installed on 6 million Ford and Lincoln vehicles. MyKey seeks to beef up the overall safety of young drivers, and when paired with Ford's Sync technology, blocks incoming calls and text messages.
Six New Hampshire teen entrepreneurs have tried their hand at a solution as well. The Inventioneers created a prototype for a steering wheel attachment called the Smartwheel, which monitors driver hand placement. An audible signal warns when hands are in an unsafe "texting-likely" position.
Public Awareness Efforts
In response to the alarming number of distracted-driving accidents, education and awareness efforts have gone into overdrive. Students in driver's education programs learn about the accident statistics, and many auto schools offer students a chance to "text and drive" in a virtual environment to show how dangerous it is. Cell phone manufacturers, including AT&T, have also put their names behind public awareness campaigns.
As a part of its "It Can Wait" campaign, AT&T is the sponsor of director Werner Herzog's sobering documentary From One Second to the Next, which looks at the lives of four families shattered by auto accidents that involved texting. Now, 40,000 high schools plan to show the film to students. The media is also spreading the word using messages from such teen stars as Jordin Sparks.
Experts agree that these efforts are key parts of the solution. But opinions differ on which approach is more effective: relying on drivers to control their behavior, or controlling a driver's ability to use a cell phone.
Blocking Technology Ignores the Bigger Problem
Relying on technology to restrict cell phone access is not the answer, says Bryan Reimer, Ph.D., a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab and the associate director of the New England University Transportation Center at MIT.
One problem is that technology is seldom foolproof, Reimer says. Teens who want to outsmart their parents will look for, and usually find, a way to circumvent imposed restrictions, he says.
But with an issue as serious as this, Reimer says the bigger concern is that technological solutions don't address the underlying problem. Parents will buy the tech products, he says. "But they're not looking at the long-term behavior. It may cure today's problems, but what about next week?" he asks. "Texting, as we know it today, may be ancient history 10 years from now. If we focus on technology as the solution, we don't address the broader issues involved."
Reimer points out that people prone to texting while driving likely fall into a bigger category: high-risk drivers. Take away their phones and they'll find a substitute distraction: tinkering with the radio, rummaging inside their bags or checking their appearance in the mirrors.
"They need to learn what's acceptable," Reimer says. The solution lies with feedback-oriented tools that examine overall driving performance, which includes cell phone use but is not limited to it, he says.
Reimer points to products such as DriveCam, an in-car camera and related technology that alert drivers when they engage in hazardous behaviors. The system provides parents with a weekly report, including a driving score and a visual clip of any risky behavior.
Parents Are the Needed Fix
Dr. Paul Atchley, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, says parents, not technology, are the key to educating teens about safer driving.
"The area of the brain that's used in good decision making (the prefrontal cortex) doesn't mature until age 25," he says. "Until then, parents need to help children make good decisions."
Atchley suggests two steps for parents to help teach good habits. He recommends that parents use these in conjunction with conversations about the dangers of distracted driving, including reminders on the death and injury statistics.
First, parents should insist that teen drivers place their phone in the trunk of the car (or another inaccessible spot) before driving away. Many states prohibit drivers who are under 18 from any type of cell phone use, eliminating any need to have the device within reach.
The idea of stowing the phone in the trunk alarms some parents, who view a phone as an important device to have at hand in an emergency. Atchley explains to them that in most emergency situations, operating a phone at the wheel may further endanger an inexperienced driver.
"For example, perhaps they're being followed," he says. "They're stressed, their brain is full. Picking up a phone is an additional distraction. Instead, they can drive to a lit, safe area."
Even the reverse situation can be dangerous. Say there's is an emergency at home, and a parent's impulse is to immediately call a teenager who is driving. Atchley poses this question: Do parents really want their kids to receive upsetting news while they're behind the wheel?
Second, Atchley encourages parents to review cell phone records and texting histories. If they uncover times of usage that imply that the teen made calls or sent texts while driving, they should discuss the situation and suspend use of both the phone and the car.
"Tell your teen you're doing this out of concern for their safety," he says. "Parents are the technology to solve this problem."
The Tech Argument: Relying on Human Behavior Is Too Risky
Experts who advocate the use of technological restrictions feel that relying on teen drivers to monitor their own behavior is not a solid answer.
"Public safety is more important than a driver's desire to use their phone," says Motao Zhu, Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology at West Virginia University.
"With technology as a solution, you know for certain they're not using their phone," says Zhu. Along with Jeffrey H. Coben, M.D., a professor of emergency medicine and community medicine at West Virginia University, Zhu co-authored an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that advocates the need for technological solutions.
"Health care practitioners and safety professionals are quite familiar with the challenges of modifying human behavior," they wrote. And so far, education and legislation on the dangers of cell phone use are proving inadequate, some researchers say.
In an interview with the journal, Coben specifically called for the installation of a built-in system that would render any handheld cell phone inoperable once the car is in motion.
Another factor that's impossible to control is a young person's false sense of confidence in his own ability to multitask, some experts say. Teens may be fully aware of the danger, but assume that they can handle it.
"You can do all the education in the world, but when a teen hears the sound of a text message — maybe they're waiting to be invited to a party — it's extremely tough to resist," says David Teater, senior director of transportation strategic initiatives for the National Safety Council. He also believes that technology is the answer.
"It's standard practice to use engineering solutions to make a positive impact on highway safety. We've been doing it for years," Teater says.
Historically, technological advances combined with mandated use have greatly enhanced driver and passenger safety. Examples include seatbelts, rear-facing infant seats and child booster seats.
"It's not a trivial matter. Auto accidents are the leading cause of death for those between age 5 and 35," Teater says. "The vast majority are due to human error, largely distracted drivers. We know how to fix this."
Opinions on the best way to combat distracted driving may vary, but given America's passion for staying connected, the problem shows no signs of fading away.
Whether the solution lies in public education, parental intervention, technological restrictions or a combination of all three, drivers need to address the problem and implement a reliable solution for themselves and the young drivers under their roofs.