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The Law's Losing the Texting-While-Driving Fight

The Law's Losing the Texting-While-Driving Fight

The strong arm of the law is not enough to still the busy hands of texters while they're driving, and it appears the solution to the problem technology has caused may have to come from technology rather than enforcement. A number of approaches to nudge drivers into compliance have hit the market, but so far there is nothing available that can't be circumvented by a determined texter.

By Erika Morphy
09/29/10 10:34 AM PT

The many laws enacted by states to ban texting while driving appear to be for naught, suggest findings from a new study by the Highway Loss Data Institute. It found no reductions in crashes after these laws took effect. In fact, the bans were associated with a slight increase in the frequency of auto insurance claims: Crash reports were up in three of the four states studied for the project after the bans were instituted.

HLDI compared claims in California, Louisiana, Minnesota and Washington -- all of which adopted laws banning texting while driving in 2008 and 2009. It then compared those findings with patterns of claims in nearby states that didn't pass comparable legislation in order to control for possible changes in collision claim rates unrelated to the bans, such as the economy or seasonal changes.

The District of Columbia was the first jurisdiction to ban motorists from texting in 2004. Since then, 30 states have implemented similar bans, nearly half in 2010.

Following a Pattern

The study's findings, which were released at the annual meeting of the Governors Highway Safety Association, echo those of a previous HLDI study that found bans on the use of cellphones while driving did not translate into improved safety statistics.

HLDI was shocked by the results of that first study, spokesperson Anne Fleming told TechNewsWorld, but "this time, when we reached similar conclusions about texting bans, we were not that surprised."

Clearly, the new laws are not working. One puzzle is why three of the four states showed an increase in crashes after they were enacted. A possible answer might be that after the laws were put in place, drivers began holding their phones lower to keep them out of sight of police officers, thus increasing the time their eyes were off the road and exacerbating the risk.

Using a driving simulator, researchers at the University of Glasgow found a sharp increase in crash likelihood when participants texted from a device hidden from view on their lap or a vehicle seat.

Not Ready to Discard Laws

Despite the findings, the institute and other highway safety advocates are not ready to abandon a legislative solution to the issue of distracted driving.

"We would like to look at the laws some more and find out if they can be better enforced," Fleming said. "If drivers believe they will get a hefty ticket, it may make a difference."

However, a legal remedy might not be enough, she acknowledged.

"We are looking at other ways that might reduce hazardous driving, such as the technologies that are being developed to help drivers avoid crashes, because the laws do not appear to be reducing crashes," Fleming said.

Two Technological Approaches

There are many companies exploring ways to solving this problem through technology Visit the VMware Tech Center. While there are many variations, two main themes have emerged: Either the technology disables cellphones while a car is in motion, or it guides the driver, in real-time, to adopt better driving habits.

Many of these products are tailored for the commercial space -- that is, for use by companies with field representatives on the road. However, in some cases the technology can be adopted for private use, by, say, a parent of a teenager.

Inthinc Technology Solutions uses a mix of telematics and fleet management software in its real-time driver behavior monitoring and mentoring product, CEO Todd Follmer told TechNewsWorld.

It goes beyond addressing distracted driving, in that it alerts drivers when they exceed posted speed limits or make unsafe maneuvers.

"It knows whether you have seatbelt on and can measure changes in velocity in any direction," Follmer said.

If the driver slows down or buckles up, "then it's no harm, no foul," he explained. If the driver doesn't respond appropriately, however, "then a notification is sent wirelessly to our servers and the owner of the vehicle -- whether it is a company or parent -- is notified."

Cellphones can be limited to safe mode when the car is in motion.

Company-Owned Property

The trick to these applications, though, is that drivers must submit to having their cellphones managed by the system.

Cellcontrol's obdEdge commercial application integrates a vehicle with whatever mobile devices a company may hand out through an onboard diagnostic dashboard, CEO Chuck Cox told TechNewsWorld.

It is true that a driver could have a personal cellphone in the vehicle that wouldn't be incorporated into the system, he acknowledged, "but a lot of companies reimburse employees for the use of their private phone in business, and that gives them the right to have this software installed on it."

None of the solutions in the market address all the possible contingencies, Cox acknowledged, but some are better than others.

The GSP solutions on the market are particularly faulty, he said, citing signal latency and urban canyons that create blind spots.

The bottom line is that anyone who is determined to text or phone while driving will find a way to do it.


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