NTSB Calls For Tougher Distracted Driving Penalties

The US National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, have released an interesting blog page detailing how the use of personal electronic devices (known on the site as PEDs) has caused an increase in the number of collisions due to distracted operators. By a personal electronic device, the NTSB mean mobile 'phones, messaging, navigation systems and entertainment devices, both fixed in the vehicle and in our hands. They cite a 2013 survey of drivers, where over two thirds admitted to talking on the 'phone whilst driving, one quarter admitted typing text or emails on the move and one third reported reading messages. The NTSB's evidence shows that operating an electronic device increases the risk of a crash by three times. There are other reports too that compare the level of cognitive distraction between drivers using a hands-free kit or holding a handset. By cognitive, this means the level of concentration required to understand what is being said. Since most 'phone calls have low quality audio, our brains must interpret what we hear into what is being said so it might be interesting to see if high definition call audio (or HD Voice) improves things.

The report is not just about using our devices whilst driving, but highlights that other individuals are also at risk, including pilots, railway drivers and ship bridge crew. One example is how, three years ago, an emergency medical services helicopter crashed in Missouri because the pilot was engaged in personal texting and did not notice that the helicopter was running low on fuel. In September 2008, an investigation of a head on collision between a freight and commuter train ascertained that the commuter train driver was distracted by text messaging. What the NTSB is advocating is a cultural change that discourages people from attempting to use their devices whilst operating a vehicle. It's calling for much tougher laws combined with strong and consistent enforcement, backed up by education. There are existing laws that prohibit the use of technology during commercial flight or on-duty rail operatives, but the NTSB wishes to extend these laws to include all motor vehicle drivers and on-duty marine crewmembers.

It's clear to me that the NTSB isn't just calling for a ban on drivers calling and texting because the survey includes all manner of electronic devices and vehicles. It will include in-car entertainment systems including Google Drive, Google Glass, Google Wear. The definition of "operating" needs to be carefully set down; should a voice command to tell your car to navigate you to an alternative destination be considered non-essential? That might depend if there's coffee involved, right? Touching a screen is one thing, telling your car something might be another, but in the end it may not matter in the eyes of the law. But over to our readers: what do you think? Do you think that voice control can mitigate a lot of the distraction, or will it instead be too tempting to be constantly fiddling with your devices because you can do it by your voice? Or will by the time any new laws are passed, we'll be able to use Google's driverless car?

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About the Author
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David Steele

Senior Staff Writer
I grew up with 8-bit computers and moved into PDAs in my professional life, using a number of devices from early Windows CE clamshells and later. Today, my main devices are a Nexus 5X, a Sony Xperia Z Tablet and a coffee cup.