Cold, dead fingers: Will motorists give up in-car cellphone access without a fight?

Highway deaths are up in the United States, as is the use of smartphone apps. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sees a link and last week issued guidelines – not mandates – that would have the major phone-OS developers figure out a way to severely limit the functionality of smartphones while a car is moving. But only the driver’s phone would be crippled, not the passengers’ phone, in NHTSA’s proposal.

Calling features would still be enabled, via handsfree link. Incoming texts would be read aloud and a speech-to-text response could be generated. Music playback would also be available. That’s about it.

Spike in fatalities unseen since the 1960s, NHTSA says

NHTSA says the 7% increase in fatalities in 2015 is unprecedented in the past half century and preliminary data on 2016 suggests the death toll rose a further 10% this year. The last time it was that high was the 1960s, when fatalities year over year increased by 7% to 9% in four of the 10 years. Since then, the death rate (total fatalities) has been flat or gone down in 26 of 46 years.


Car fatalties FARS 1921 on.xlsx

Traffic deaths each year per 100,000 population and per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, left axis, and total motor vehicle deaths per year (car, truck, bus, motorcycle, bicyclist, pedestrian). Source: NHTSA FARS database.

How big is the problem? Depends on what stats you use

The concern by safety officials comes from a spike in traffic fatalities. How big of a spike depends on which data gets publicized. The chart above is from NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). Here are three ways to look at the data.

  • Raw fatalities. This is how many people died in a year. Since the US population grows each year, using this data set often provides the most dramatic increases. The death toll in the US in 1970 (the start of the safety era with seat belts mandatory since 1968) was 52,627 when the population was 205 million; in 2015 the US population was 321 million, 57% more, but the fatality rate was a third lower, 35,092 in 2015. So, historically the death rate is down. But in 2015 the death toll was 2,417 more than in 2014, or 7% more. The five-year increase, 2015 vs. 2010, was 6%.
  • Deaths per 100,000 per year. This accounts, somewhat, for our growing population over time. It’s a measure that’s understandable. If you live in a town of 100,000, on average 11 people died last year. In 1970, it was 26 per 100,000. From 2014 to 2015, deaths per 100,000 went up 7%, too, same as the raw fatalities rate. The five-year increase was 2% (2015 vs. 2010). Deaths-per-100K peaked in the 1930s at almost 30 per 100,000 people. It drops in bad economic times, during World War II (driving restrictions), and during gasoline shortages (mid-1970s, early 1980s), but it’s generally heading down.
  • Deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT). This statistic does the best job of factoring in fluctuations in the economy and fuel shortages, as well as safety improvements in cars and roads. The line slopes steadily downward, from almost 25 deaths per 100 million VMT in 1921 (the first year of more detailed auto fatalities record-keeping)  to just over 1 last year. In 2014 it was the lowest in history, 1.08 deaths per 100 million VMT. In 2015 it was 1.11, an increase of 3%, the only increase in the past decade. That’s noticeable and worrisome, but 3% isn’t 7%.

Even as auto fatalities have gone up 3% or 7% in the past year, you’re still pretty safe in a car. Multiply 11 fatalities per 100,000 people times the 80 years a person is in a car as a passenger or driver (or out walking or biking), you get 880 fatalities per 100,000, or slightly less than a 1% chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident over your lifetime. That’s low but still high enough that you’ll likely know of a friend or family member killed in an accident. It’s a leading cause, (for years the leading cause), of deaths in children and adults under 25. For better or worse, suicides, homicides and drug deaths are now challenging auto accidents among those 25 and under.

What are the odds a cellphone kill switch is adopted?

By asking cellphone-makers and OS providers to voluntarily restrict what services the phone provides in a moving car, the feds look a bit less like spoilsports. There is likely to be pushback. Whenever drivers are asked to self-rate their driving, the majority say they’re above average, which isn’t possible statistically, and they might bristle at seeing their quote freedoms curtailed.  (See below.)

There are reports that Apple in 2008 applied for a patent on technology that would lock out phones that were in motion; the technology supposedly could determine which phone was the driver’s. The patent was cited in a 2014 lawsuit over an alleged distracted-driving fatality.

CellControl, a Baton Rouge, LA, company, offers DriveID, a dash-mounted $ 129 hardware-software product that can limit the driver’s use of his or her phone. DriveID is managed by parents in a family situation or by a fleet manager in a commercial setting. Pokemon Go has been cited as a factor in some car crashes, so much so that the current version has a lockout that disables the app when it’s being played at greater than walking speeds. The change was hastened by a video showing a Pokemon Go motorist sideswiping a police car.

It’s possible phone-makers will use a limit-your-phone-access mandate as a reason to keep from adding competing apps into the handful now enabled under Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Specifically: You wouldn’t see Apple Maps on an Android phone and you wouldn’t see Google Maps or Waze on an Apple phone running CarPlay.

Americans didn’t like enforced ignition interlocks

History shows motorists reacted badly to heavy-handed behavior modification. In the mid-1970s, cars were equipped with ignition interlocks that wouldn’t allow the car to be started until the driver and front seat passenger had buckled their seat belts. This was supported by the auto industry in part to stave off mandatory airbags, which at the time were seen as a substitute for seat belts. The buzzers were loud, sometimes electrical gremlins kept the cars from starting, and on many cars it was easy to defeat the interlock. Automakers pulled back within a couple years.

Circa 1980 some automakers, again trying to keep airbags out of the picture, installed automatic seat belts with complex (read: not always reliable) mechanical arms that draped the seatbelt across the driver’s and passenger’s torsos. If driver or passenger opened the door while backing up, the belt retracted and wrapped itself around the occupant’s neck. This, too, died an early death.

Is there a sensible compromise?

Given how little Americans like to be told what to do when driving, they’re not going to like limits on their freedom to use their phones in ways ranging from distracting or potentially hazardous to downright stupid.

Driver-assist technology can help make the occupants of a car safer should the driver be distracted while creating or reading a long text. A car equipped with lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, pedestrian detection, and forward emergency braking will alert the driver if the car ahead suddenly slows, or if the car is drifting out of lane. For someone who’s texting, that is either a safety feature … or it’s an enabler for someone to write longer texts before they get in trouble.

While texting is the main concern, better voice recognition and one-shot destination entry will make it easier to enter an address without stopping. Right now, every phone has that feature, but only some embedded navigation systems. Already, most automakers lock out the LCD display’s ability to tap in the address. Automakers so far have resisted implementing technologies that could recognize when a passenger, not the driver, is entering address information. Mercedes-Benz offers a unique technology, SplitView, that shows the driver and passenger different views of the same center stack screen. Alternating pixels point left and right.

If NHTSA moves to reign in the use of smartphones in cars, there’s likely to be pushback. Even if distracted driving is the cause of the current 3%-7% increase in fatalities, drivers still see the overall risk to themselves as minor. And there’s conflicting research as to what constitutes distraction. Studies show that just talking on a hands-free phone takes up some of the driver’s attention. Tuning the car radio has always been distracting. Some research says talking to a passenger can be distracting. In the past, two of the biggest distractions were the driver dropping a lit cigarette in his or her lap, or a bee flying in the car. Those are small distractions now with the decrease in smoking and air conditioning that allows for windows-closed driving.


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