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Government Should Make Driving-While-Dialing the New DWI: View

December 16, 2011

Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Driving is an inherently dangerous activity. But in the U.S., we’ve generally accepted that the gains in convenience, freedom and productivity that motor vehicles provide outweigh their many hazards.

The growing distractive power of our digital devices may change this calculation. In a report released Dec. 13, the National Transportation Safety Board recommends an outright ban on using any mobile phones -- even those equipped with hands- free devices -- while driving.

Although such a ban isn’t likely any time soon, we support the motivation behind it -- and any other effort that can hammer home the dangers of driving-while-dialing.

The agency has data on its side. A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2005 found that mobile-phone use increases fourfold the likelihood of a crash causing injuries. Hands-free devices, the researchers found, were no safer. Other studies have shown that using phones decreases drivers’ attention to the road and delays their reaction times. With often tragic results: Distracted driving contributed to an estimated 3,092 highway deaths last year.

The NTSB cites the increasing capabilities of mobile devices -- to stream videos, retrieve e-mail, or play games -- as further evidence in favor of a ban. This phenomenon will only increase. That makes it all the more important to make clear now which activities can be tolerated behind the wheel and which cannot.

Using Common Sense

The first rule should be common sense. For example, sending text messages while driving, an objectively dangerous pursuit, should be banned outright. (It already is in 35 states and Washington, D.C.)

But further restrictions -- such as allowing the use of only hands-free devices, levying stiffer penalties for accidents involving mobile-phone use, or enacting a ban on drivers interacting with anything more complicated than the radio dial - - are harder calls to make. State legislatures must take into account that drivers really like to use their phones, and that these devices can make productive an otherwise time-wasting commute. Enforcement will also be challenging.

But as the dangers of distracted driving become clearer, we suspect public consensus will begin to form that the risks are not worth the rewards.

If and when this consensus forms, one solution the NTSB cites is promising. It suggests that device makers develop technology that would disable phones within reach of the driver while a vehicle is in motion. Such a device would still allow phones to make emergency calls, and would be able to differentiate between passengers and the driver. And the technology could be extended to all the gadgets that automakers now lard into cars to make them more attractive to tech-minded consumers. Insurance companies can speed public adoption of this technology by offering discounts for drivers who use it.

Such safety measures are available in some electronic devices, but it could take years to apply them more broadly. In the meantime, as states experiment with what approach best balances drivers’ freedom and convenience with the safety of others, the best way to reduce dangerous distractions is a deceptively simple one: raising public awareness.

Traffic fatalities have been falling steadily since 2005, and declined to an all-time low in 2010. Although there isn’t a definitive explanation, the Department of Transportation cites increased public awareness of the dangers of not wearing a seatbelt and of drunken driving, along with better safety technology.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood deserves credit for trying to start a similar effort to reduce phone use in cars. But more can be done. The idea would be to attach a social stigma to DWD that’s the rough equivalent of DWI. Ad campaigns would help. Punitive insurance premiums would also concentrate drivers’ minds. And states could start requiring offending motorists to attend awareness classes.

After all, Americans already understand the danger: 62 percent admit that using a mobile phone behind the wheel is hazardous. The trick will be persuading people that it isn’t just the guy in the other lane who can’t talk and drive -- it’s you.

--Editors: Timothy Lavin, Michael Newman

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To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.


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