FCC, DOT team up for high-tech cure to distracted driving

The Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Transportation are teaming up to develop what they called high-tech solutions to the growing problem of distracted or inattentive drivers.

The DOT and FCC said they will set up a working group to evaluate technology-based answers to the distracted driving problem and will improve outreach efforts to educate the public about the dangers of texting or talking on cell phones while driving, and other distracting behavior that can lead to deadly accidents, the agencies stated.

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Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed that nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver, and more than half a million were injured. On any given day in 2008, more than 800,000 vehicles were driven by someone using a handheld cell phone.

“Across the board, federal researchers who have directly observed drivers of all ages found that more and more people are using a variety of handheld devices while driving -- not just cell phones, but also iPods, video games, Blackberrys and GPS systems. In particular, cell phone use for talking and texting is now more prevalent on our nation's roads, rail systems and waterways, carrying a dangerous potential for accidents,” the NHTSA stated.

Cell phones and texting are now the primary means of communication for many people, especially young adults. NHTSA’s research shows that the worst offenders are the youngest drivers: men and women under 20 years of age, the NHTSA stated.

“We now know that the worst offenders are the youngest, least experienced drivers,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a speech recently. “Unfortunately though, the problem doesn't end there. Distracted driving occurs across all age groups and all modes of transportation, from cars to buses and trucks to trains. We must work together to find solutions that will prevent crashes caused by driver distraction.”

In a recent speech, LaHood noted a number of actions the DOT is undertaking in the areas it can most change quickly: Make permanent restrictions on the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in rail operations; Ban text messaging altogether, and restrict the use of cell phones by truck and interstate bus operators; Disqualify school bus drivers convicted of texting while driving, from maintaining their commercial driver's licenses.

He also called on state and local governments to work with to reduce fatalities and crashes by making distracted driving part of their state highway plans, and by passing state and local laws against distracted driving in all types of vehicles—especially school buses.

On a technology level what can these agencies do? The House recently approved the Advanced Vehicle Technology Act of 2009 with a goal of developing a wide range of scientific advances for cars including technology that could help with the problem if it can get out of the labs fast enough.

For example, an onboard computer system to monitor driving characteristics such as unsafe driving behavior. According to a DOT report, feedback from such a system can be supplied to drivers in real-time or in the case of a commercial driver, provide carrier management a view into its driver's behavior. Such a system would monitor speed; following behavior; attention/inattention; fatigue symptoms; and general safety.

Crash avoidance technologies could mitigate negative effects of drivers using cell phones or other distracting devices but drivers using a portable touch-screen phone and examining a dashboard screen image at the same time could be further distracted, the Government Accountability Office noted in a report last year. Such systems could also create complacency that could exacerbate dangers.

Representatives of the automobile industry have said that consumer training in the use of new technologies could be key to maximizing safety benefits, the GAO stated.

This story, "FCC, DOT team up for high-tech cure to distracted driving" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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