Finger pressing Apple Maps button on the Apple CarPlay main screen in modern car dashboard.

Addressing Distracted Driving: The Problem is Bigger than Texting

By Jack Becker

Distracted driving is deadly.

In 2019, 8.7% of all motor vehicle traffic fatalities involved a distracted driver, totaling 3,142 fatalities. And hundreds of thousands more are injured due to distracted drivers each year.

So, what are the solutions? Anti-drunk driving initiatives may provide some valuable insights.

The share of motor vehicle fatalities involving alcohol impairment has declined from 41% in 1985 to 28% in 2019.

Much of this decrease is attributable to laws and law enforcement. When the FY 2001 Transportation Appropriations bill included a provision setting the national impaired driving standard at .08 BAC, it was touted as saving an estimated 500 lives per year. Every state has some form of drunk driving law, and 38 states have open container laws, and these laws seem to impact fatalities.

Yet, imagine if this had gone in a different direction. Imagine if beer was seen as particularly dangerous, so driving after drinking beer was illegal, while driving after drinking wine was legal. At that point, an auto manufacturer could start putting wine bars in cars as an added amenity. Or imagine a scenario in which drinking while driving was legal (or illegal, but not enforced), provided that beverages aren’t handheld. People could drink in the car as long as they had a long bendy straw and a cup holder.

In some ways, distracted driving laws and enforcement of these laws have gone in this direction. They have been laser-focused on texting and handheld cell phone use.

The first texting and driving law was passed in 2007, when the sales of the newly released iPhone paled in comparison to the sales of Nokia phones. It was hard to imagine linking your phone to a dynamic screen in your car at the time. In fact, legislators made a reasonable decision to focus on texting based on research at the time. In 2009, The New York Times reported that texting while driving “far surpasses the dangers of other driving distractions,” according to the latest research.

Text messaging while driving is illegal in 48 states. But other forms of distracted driving have been overlooked to the point that cars now have large touchscreens full of apps for drivers to use. Handheld cell phone use is prohibited in 24 states. But who needs a handheld phone when a car’s screen can show you all of your text messages and your music library?

To fully address distracted driving, multiple solutions should be considered.

Education is a vital tool in combatting distracted driving, especially given the success of anti-drunk driving campaigns (and the catchiness of NHTSA advertisements), but it is limited without the force of law.

Police departments could increase enforcement of distracted driving laws. High-visibility enforcement has been effective in changing driving behavior. This would not require any major policy or legal changes. However, it’s tough to implement. Not only is an officer responsible for deciding when to pull someone over, but they also must decide whether a driver was actually distracted or not.

Some weird questions would follow, such as whether it’s too distracting to eat a bagel in the car, and whether a driver had one hand on their bagel or two. With drunk driving or open container laws, there are more objective factors like BAC or the presence of an open container that simplify enforcement.

Focusing on technical approaches to a specific source of distracted driving, like car screens, could be a more manageable step.

Apple’s motives in creating CarPlay already seem aligned with public safety. They state on their website that CarPlay is designed to help “your eyes and hands stay where they belong.” This is admirable and similar systems with voice recognition have proven to be effective. Even looking at the CarPlay screen seems less distracting than looking down at a phone.

However, it’s reasonable to say that a text message popping up on a brightly-colored car screen is still distracting. And using the screen can implicate all three types of distracted driving: visual (eyes away from the road), manual (hands off the wheel), and cognitive (focus away from driving).

CarPlay could use another nudge towards public safety. Small technical tweaks — encouraged by the government, or required by regulations — might be a good first step. For example, car manufacturers could design screens to deactivate whenever a car is not parked. The screen would still show a map or directions while driving, but the interactivity would be turned off. Some cars already prevent Bluetooth set-up when a car is in motion, presumably because it requires operating a handheld cell phone as well, so there is some precedent for this. Keeping voice recognition active would allow drivers to make calls or change music while not being visually or manually distracted.

If this type of change is implementable through WiFi updates, the costs normally associated with car changes could be minimized. There may be some unhappy consumers (another mandatory technological advancement in vehicle safety, the seatbelt, was met with significant opposition), but with strong government backing, these initiatives could have long-lasting positive effects. Until then, consider minimizing the distractions in your car. If we all did, thousands of lives could be saved.

Jack Becker

Jack is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former student fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center. He thanks you for reading this and hopes you have a great day!

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