Thursday, February 23, 2012

Distracted driving and cellphones: Technological solutions to avoid overreactive bans

Distracted driving is clearly a critical safety concern, however I believe that banning use of cellphones is a major overreaction.

Yet that is precisely what the US National Transportation Safety Board and several other organizations are pushing for. They are not just talking about texting or hands-free use, they are talking about banning all non-emergency calls even with hands-free technology.

Their key argument seems to be this: Unlike talking to a passenger (who can also see the road and recognize when the driver is in a situation where they need to ignore the conversation to pay higher attention to driving), or listening to the radio (which is not interactive), talking to a remote caller is particularly distracting since the caller will keep on talking through critical driving situations, and drivers will tend to feel compelled to maintain the conversation.

That may be the case. However rather than a knee-jerk ban, I think that it would be better to impose requirements for a technological solution. Here's what a cellphone should be capable of doing, within a few years.

  • Within two years: Notifying the person at the other end of a cell-phone conversation that the call is from or to a vehicle in motion: This would be relatively easy using GPS and accelerometer date today. The phone could simply inject into the conversation when the call starts, or the vehicle starts moving, or after a prolonged stop, the spoken words, "vehicle in motion". People would get used to it. It wouldn't solve all problems but it would be a first step. It might he hard to distinguish between a passenger talking vs. the driver talking, but a passenger could easily explain the situation.
  • Within 5-7 years: Interacting with upcoming vehicular technology inject a warning, or in extreme cases suspend a call, when indeed a driver is facing a difficult situation. For example the phone could take such an action when it detects the dense fast-moving traffic, an accident-prone zone, slippery roads, low visibility, accidents in the area,  potential rapid-braking requirements ahead, or indeed the driver or the driver of a nearby car behaving in a way that shows tiredness or distraction. At this level of technological development, the phone could also detect what area of the car it is in so as to know whether it is in the hands of a passenger or not.
  • Within 10-12 years: providing a video link to a camera facing forward out of the car's windshield so the caller can see the conditions on the road.

I think part two of my above proposal could in fact help actively reduce accidents, since the driver himself or herself would also hear the warning. All three of the above could in turn become requirements, as technology develops. Phones could be certified as 'distraction-reduction enabled'.

I used CB radios in the 1980's. Truckers and many other commercial drivers have used such 2-way communication devices for decades. Cellphones are only different because the person at the other end may be someone who is not also a driver, or aware of the driving context. My suggestions would largely remove that argument.

Talking while driving can have several important benefits.

  • It can keep the driver alert on long stretches of highway driving.
  • It can allow the driver to make better plans, which can sometimes improve safety.
  • It can allow drivers to communicate their status to others which can be helpful in many ways.
  • It is needed in many lines of business, where people need to talk with dispatchers, or decide where to drive to based on a changing context. Spoken communication is almost certain to be better than information appearing on a screen.
  • When lost, having someone guide you to the right place can be very valuable. Lost drivers are likely to be particularly distracted as they deflect their ideas to look for address numbers, 

And there are many other sources of distraction on the roads:

  • Use of GPS-based navigation devices
  • Talking to children or blind passengers, who be as less aware of context like external callers
  • Changing channel on the radio, or the heating controls, or other aspects of our ever-more-complex vehicle controls.
  • Drinking to keep hydrated and maintain one's caffeine levels; eating snacks. Being hungry and thirsty presumably can result in their own source of distraction, so we wouldn't want a complete ban on doing these activities.

There is no technological solution to rowdy kids or the need to drink a coffee. But there can be for the distractions worsened by technology itself.

I am completely in favour of a rigorous ban on texting, and strong restrictions if other devices that require deflecting the eyes or using the hands. In this regard, user interfaces and accuracy for voice-driven calling and voice-output on navigational devices needs improving. For example, I find my iPhone 3GS normally fails to call the correct person or play the right song when I use Voice Control (maybe it is my half-British accent). This should be an area of urgent focus for UI improvement. I would like, to have a few preset commands, 'call home' being the most important, that would be ultra-reliable.

I can see an argument for 'cell-phone' free zones or conditions (bad weather, heavy fast-moving highways, complex inner-city road layouts, etc). But the outright ban is over-reaction.

I can also see an argument for greater limitations on cell-phone use for new drivers (akin to zero-alcohol policies, and limitations on night driving). Various jurisdictions now also require driver re-tests for seniors above a certain age. Perhaps limitations on cellphone use could be integrated with such requirements. It would likely be possible to devise speed-of-reaction or distractibility tests. It is clear that as we age, or ability to multitask diminishes. On my license I have a requirement to wear eyeglasses because I couldn't pass a vision test without them. Perhaps I could have a requirement to not use a phone if I can't pass a multitasking test.

For an earlier post on my predictions for smart phone capabilities, see here.

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