Policy Safety & Education

How to truly reduce distracted driving

Proposed state legislation (HB 4277, HB 4278, and HB 4279) would make it largely illegal to use a handheld phone while driving. Proponents of this legislation say this is, “a great step forward to stop distracted driving.”

It’s not.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA):

The effectiveness of laws banning cell phone use has been
examined in several research studies. The results across types of phone use are inconsistent. Specifically, research examining prohibitions on hands-free phone use and texting have yielded mixed results in terms of reductions in phone use while driving and reduced crashes. There is some evidence that banning handheld cell phone use leads to long-term reductions in this behavior; however, many State and Local laws were only recently passed and effectiveness is still being examined. At this time, there is insufficient consensus across research findings to determine that this countermeasure is effective.

Countermeasures That Work: A Highway Safety Countermeasure Guide for State Highway Safety Offices, 10th Edition, 2020

NHTSA adds that “there is less disagreement about the dangers posed by texting while driving”, which Michigan law currently prohibits.

Also, the National Transportation Safety Board states, “Hands-free is not risk free. Using a device hands-free does not reduce driver distraction.”

Racial Disparities in Enforcement

Like other organizations involved in transportation equity, we don’t support increasing law enforcement’s role in traffic safety. The proposed cell phone law makes handheld cell phone use a primary offense. In other words, motorists can get pulled over solely for this violation.

When Massachusetts implemented a similar law similar, they found that non-white drivers were more likely to be ticketed and fined.  Dr. Carsten Andresen, a professor of criminal justice at St. Edward’s University in Austin, found that white people were more likley to just get a warning. We would expect a similar outcome under the proposed Michigan law.

A True Step Forward

All distracted driving can be addressed through effective driver monitoring, systems which a growing number of new vehicles currently have.

In fact, Consumer Reports now awards safety points for vehicle models with these systems.

We’re not saying how many seconds you have to look at the road, and if you’re allowed to look at the mirrors. We are just calling for the bare bones. You’ve got to make sure that the driver is awake and generally looking forward, toward the roadway.

Kelly Funkhouser, Vehicle Technology Manager at Consumer Reports (Source)

Distracted driving is a growing issue due to vehicle technology. This includes “bloated, distracting, and unregulated” infotainment systems as well as driver assistance features. “Today’s infotainment systems can be as distracting—if not more so—than personal electronic devices,” says NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy.

NHTSA could regulate infotainment system design whereas they currently only offer design guidance. One study found this guidance is largely ignored.

How do the companies behind all those distracting screens and apps — the automakers and smartphone manufacturers — view their responsibility for the problem and their role in solving it?

When companies do talk about distracted driving, they tend to frame it as a problem with cellphones. Their solution: Integrate the same functionality and more into dashboard interfaces and voice-recognition systems.

‘We are killing people’: How technology has made your car ‘a candy store of distraction’, LA Times, July 2022

2023 Cadillac LYRIQ offers an integrated 33″ diagonal LED display

Besides distracting vehicle interiors, Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) are also a concern.

A report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety says, “as drivers develop more experience and comfort using advanced driver assistance systems, they are also more likely to drive distracted while using the systems.” How much more? Nearly twice as often.

So, how do we get more vehicles with driver monitoring systems? One way is for NHTSA to rate vehicle safety based on these monitoring systems through their New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). NCAP is currently updating their rating process, and like many others, we submitted comments supporting this change.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also instructs NHTSA to “perform research and report to Congress on the potential for technology interventions to reduce driver distraction, driver disengagement, automation complacency, and foreseeable misuse of ADAS by drivers,” according to the Center for Automotive Research.

Effective driver monitoring systems and increased NHTSA oversight would be great steps forward. Both are more effective, require less law enforcement, and better align with the Safe Systems Approach.

Just adding more laws and more education won’t make our roads safer for bicycling and walking.

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