One of the things that drives demand for the virtually free use of our roads is the ability to do just about anything we want on them. That increasingly includes the dangerous act of fiddling with our phones while driving. It’s not difficult to predict road deaths will continue to steadily increase if we don’t do something about the now normalized habit. Streetsblog interestingly notes that there may need to be a major nationwide effort to address the problem.
In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration first proposed a series of “voluntary guidelines” to reduce the potential for driver distraction. The first round of guidelines applied to in-dash information systems. NHTSA also urges device makers to include a “driver mode” that would disable more distracting features while the car is in motion. For example, a dash-mounted device would not display the Twitter app or allow the driver to text.
But these rules are weak, and no company will be forced to comply with them. There is a legal question of whether NHTSA, which has regulated cars, has the authority to regulate cell phones.
Deb Trombley, a spokesperson for the National Safety Council, said her organization would prefer mandates, not recommendations, but that the political climate is not favorable. A National Safety Council survey found that if phone makers did comply with distracted driving guidelines, it could have a huge impact. More than half of all drivers reported they would not uninstall safety features that limited use of certain apps behind the wheel [PDF].
Meanwhile, distracted driving is becoming just another habit to millions and millions of Americans. To advance regulations with teeth — the kind that would save thousands of lives a year — we might need a mass movement that delivers a shock to the political system, like the ones waged by Ralph Nader for seat belts, or by Mothers Against Drunk Driving to establish strict drunk driving laws. And right now, no one is doing that in an organized way.
I reached out to MADD to ask if the group is doing any advocacy around distracted driving. The answer was no.