Technology and distraction: the odd couple

| 11/4/2009

Technology helped advance the problem of distracted driving, but it could also lead to a solution. That’s the opinion of lawmakers and regulators in a discussion about making the roads safer.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Communications Commission are teaming up to evaluate technology-based solutions to distracted driving, an issue involving cars, trucks, buses, trains and even aircraft.

Truckers who stay connected to the world through wireless technology but who also witness dangerous driver behavior from their cabs are very much a part of the discussion.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says the DOT is treating all driver distraction as a problem, from eating to putting on makeup to sending and receiving text messages.

“All of these things are a distraction. We have focused on texting because it’s an epidemic,” LaHood said Wednesday, Nov. 4, during a joint hearing of two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees. “We are all hooked on cell phones.”

LaHood and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski are forming a joint task force that will help find a technological solution to the problem. Perhaps the solution lies with hands-free or talk-to-text devices, although LaHood says he is not yet convinced.

Other solutions may involve technology that immobilizes certain functions of a wireless device while a vehicle is in motion. The discussion is still young, but wireless providers and other industries testified that the solutions are at their fingertips.

Congress is taking the matter of driver distraction seriously, too, with two Senate bills and one House bill under consideration.

OOIDA favors the approach taken by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, and Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, in S1938.

“We’ve said that distracted driving is a problem and needs to be addressed, but we are cautious of how they’re going to go about this. We endorse the Rockefeller-Lautenberg bill because it does provide the states with flexibility and grants as opposed to a federal mandate,” said OOIDA Government Affairs Counsel Laura O’Neill. “We’ve chosen to support the carrot approach as opposed to the stick approach.”

Bills offered by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, and House Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-NY, would penalize states that fail to pass texting bans and other restrictions.

Secretary LaHood, who endorses Congressional action but does not favor a particular bill, is also promoting a regulatory approach through the rulemaking process. Specific to truckers, LaHood’s proposed rule would ban text messaging and would limit the use of cell phones for drivers.

OOIDA will participate in the rulemaking process and offer comments on behalf of the men and women who haul America’s freight.

“Yes, we’re agreeing with Congress to pass some legislation to give the DOT the authority to do this, but we’re also going to participate in the rulemakings to look for what sort of technology they are banning, and how much the penalties are going to be that are levied against truckers, and what sort of rights do law enforcement have for seizing a cell phone and searching it?” O’Neill told Land Line.

“We’re going to be looking at those things very closely. We just want to make sure that the drivers’ rights, particularly their privacy rights, are being protected.”

– By David Tanner, staff writer