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Are Automakers Addressing Cell Phone Safety?

Wired Vehicle Cockpits Offer Increased Distractions

Car Interior.The cellular era has come full circle. Initially, first generation mobile phones were inextricably attached to the car. Then everyone wanted smaller and portable. Now, once again, high-end carmakers are squeezing high-tech wireless communications into automotive instrument panels, which gives drivers a range of capabilities that go well beyond changing the radio station. In fact some systems make an old-fashioned cell phone call look downright primitive. This makes one wonder: Are automakers heading in the wrong direction?

High-End Automotive Add-ons or High-Tech Distractions

You’ve likely heard of the On-Star systems, the automated wireless security system from GM that makes it possible for motorists to call for emergency and roadside assistance, as well as download a host of travel and business information. Many other automakers have developed their own proprietary systems, including: on-dash global positioning systems (GPS), sophisticated digital map devices, and even in-dash MP3 audio players.

If cell phones pose as unsafe a distraction as most safety advocates argue, then what about this next generation of digitized driver “convenience”? Already debate circles the bowl about common everyday distractions as simple as changing a radio station, adjusting a mirror, or sipping coffee. Texting will quickly become a nationwide faux pax while driving. What’s so safe about checking in with your dashboard mounted map system while you’re cruising through traffic or checking in on your latest stock quotes?

When Enough is Enough

Tenacious safety organizations lobby for regulations that would limit the functions installed in new cars. Right now manufacturers pretty much have free reign, but studies have come to light that prove the devil is in the details. Insurance companies and consumer safety groups do not want to disable the new functions that help make drivers and passengers safe or which get them quick assistance in emergencies. Concern mounts, however, that bundled in alongside good safety features are sophisticated telecommunications components that will ultimately do more harm than good.

Industry Argument

Manufacturers argue that the newest designs and innovations slated for vehicle consoles and dashboards are all intended for the convenience of the driver and, of course, safety. If communications devices are built-in then no one has to worry about hands-free, right?

Mercedes makes it good business to keep customers that can afford its luxury rides ahead of the herd. When the 2007 C-class Mercedes came out, the fleet sported a ramped up voice-activated navigational and telecommunications console. Drivers may program a range of built-in communications devices that let them conduct business, make phone calls, adjust climate controls, and change between their favorite radio stations, yes, with no hands.

‘Hands-Free’ Debunked

If hands-free sounds safe you’re not alone. Many consumer safety advocates argue that the whole insistence on “hands-free” does nothing more than make drivers even more comfy in their inattentiveness.1 A frequently cited study is the one conducted by the University of Utah in which psychology researchers analyzed behavior and awareness levels of drivers involved in hands-free cell phone conversations. This study has been instrumental to those safety advocates that push for comprehensive cell phone bans in cars.

Researchers discovered through the study that “equivalent deficits in driving performance were obtained for both users of hand-held and hands-free cell phones.”2 Of course a favorite counter to this is, “What about listening to the radio, isn’t that just as much a distraction?” Analysts say, no, “ listening to verbal material, by itself, is not sufficient to produce the dual-task interference associated with using a cell phone while driving.” Instead it was when drivers became engaged in a conversation that researchers observed their concentration fall apart.3

Need for Regulation

Professor David Strayer, the lead researcher in the U of Utah study, has said that the built-in telecommunications technology available for automobiles should be subject to standards as strict as those imposed on the pharmaceutical companies by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).4

If it sounds as if the automotive industry cares little about driver safety and the effect that new technology may bring into a vehicle cockpit, the auto companies’ scientific projects speak otherwise. Some of the most interesting research into driver distraction is actually being conducted by automakers:

Automotive manufacturers often come off as the bad guys in issues of driver safety. Studies continue to show alarming correlations between collisions and driver distractions, and yet the distractions continue to become more sophisticated and numerous. In fact the smokescreen has likely been the issue of “hands-free.” While manufacturers turn out ever more wired cars, they also have their ear to the ground. Most spend millions of dollars to study the habits and behaviors of drivers. This makes good business sense; in the future, they may be liable for driver distractions.

  1. “Is Hand’s Free Actually Safer?” CNN Money, June 9, 2005, http://money.cnn.com/2005/06/09/technology/personaltech/car_cell_phones/.
  2. 2 Strayer, Cooper, Drews, “What Do Drivers Fail to See When Conversing On a Cell Phone? 2004, www.psych.utah.edu/AppliedCognitionLab/HFES2004-000804-1.pdf.
  3. 3 Ibid.
  4. 4 Ibid.

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