Cindy Skrzycki, The Washington Post's outstanding regulatory affairs reporter, notes in her column today that The Center for Auto Safety has asked federal regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to "restrict the use of systems that carmakers are building into their vehicles so motorists can't make phone calls or fiddle with other interactive gear while they drive." The Center for Auto Safety's complete petition can be found here.
Skrzycki notes that on-board communications, navigation and entertainment systems are gaining in popularity. For example, GM's "OnStar" system is now being countered by "Sync," which is Ford's new offering that is being developed in partnership with Microsoft. (I saw a demo of it out at CES this year and it is very cool. It allows the music from a PC in your house to be zapped directly to your car as soon as you pull in the garage). And many other auto makers currently integrate such systems into their cars, or at least plan to in the near future.
But the Center for Auto Safety claims that this is all just a disaster waiting to happen and want the government to regulate to restrict this the use of these technologies within our cars:
"It is tragic that auto makers are continuing to integrate and promote hands-free cellular telephones in vehicles. These systems are a distraction and affect the driverâ€™s ability to perform properly. It is time for the government to intervene on this dangerous practice, to ensure basic protection for those who use public roads and sidewalks. As cognitive engaging technology makes its way into standardized automotive features, driver distraction will increase. It is essential to start regulating now to address driver distraction in order to keep our roadways safe."
Specifically, the Center wants federal regulators to put the following regulation on the books: "Any vehicle integrated personal communication systems including cellular phones and text messaging systems shall be inoperative when the transmission shift lever is in a forward or reverse drive position." In other words, if you engage the transmission, most communications / entertainment devices would be automatically disabled.
Here's my simple problem with all this: Do these folks not know that a vibrant aftermarket for in-vehicle communications devices / installation exists? Seriously, have they not stopped by a Best Buy or Circuit City store lately and strolled through the car aisle? Apparently not, because if they did they would realize that the market for these devices is exploding. When I was out at CES this year, I spent hours walking the entire North Hall of the Vegas Convention Center which was dedicated entirely to new car communications / entertainment technologies. (And there was even more car technology on display in booths in the Central and South Halls of the convention center!)
So, what would the net effect of this proposed regulation be? Admittedly, it might diminish the market for new car installs of this stuff, but it would also boost the market for secondary sales / installation of such gear. In fact, I can imagine major installers using this regulation as part of their sales pitch in the future.
Of course, I suppose the advocates of such regulation would then recommend expanding the coverage of the rules to include BOTH new car installs as well as aftermarket installs. The problem with that proposal is that: (1) it would encourage a massive black-market / cicumvention business to develop (especially since many people can do it in their own garages); and (2) it would necessitate a fairly massive enforcement effort by regulators / law enforcement officials. Seriously, how in the world are they going to go about policing all this activity. After all, millions of people already jack their iPods and satellite radio devices into their car stereos today (via a cassette adapter, a mini-plug, a wireless adapter, or even USB jack). Should that be illegal?
The proper solution here is education, not regulation. During driver training education, teenagers and other new drivers need to be taught the importance of keeping both hands on the wheel and their eyes pointed straight ahead at the road. Operating a vehicle is serious business with serious repurcustions if you ignore basic rules of driving safety. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't have access to communications / entertainment devices while in your car. We just need to teach new drivers how (and when) to use them properly. For example, set up playlists in your iPod and start them running before you pull out of the driveway. And program the preset buttons on your car stereo or satellite radio device so you can switch stations without looking. If you have to scroll to find something new to listen to, try to do it when you're at a stop light, not when you're driving down a busy street with a lot of pedistrians around.
Finally, to the extent law enforcement needs to be brought into the picture at all, I would recommend that it be done in a technology-agnostic or activity-agnostic fashion. Instead of trying to ban technologies (cell phones, radios, iPods, navigation devices, etc.) or specific activities (conversations, singing, smoking, etc.) inside the cabin of an automobile, police officers should simply enforce those laws already on the books dealing with reckless or negligent driving. If a driver is weaving in and out of traffic lanes, or posing a serious threat to others on the road for any reason, they should be pulled over and probably ticketed if the infraction is serious enough. For starters, I'd like to see some of those stupid idiots I see eating while driving, or worse yet, putting on make-up behind the wheel, pulled over and ticketed when they are driving eratically. But the same goes for anyone who is operating a vehicle in a dangerous fashion.
Again, enforce basic traffic safety rules and focus on educating drivers about vehicle safety. Don't ban new technologies.