Today's vehicles feature more safety-oriented technology than ever before. These devices, including Bluetooth hands-free mobile technology, high-tech navigation systems, GM's OnStar and Ford Motor Co.'s Sync, all have been promoted as tools to help motorists stay safer on the road.
And you may be surprised at who thinks all this new car safety is actually dangerous: U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. In fact, he seems intent on waging a campaign against technology that's ostensibly meant to improve safety.
In January, The Washington Post reported that "LaHood has said he believes motorists are distracted by any use of mobile phones while driving, including hands-free calls made while using vehicle information and entertainment systems such as Ford Motor Company's Sync and General Motors' OnStar."
Could advanced vehicle technology actually be causing more crashes?
Jose Alberto Ucles, spokesperson for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), says, "Anything that takes your eyes off the road or your hands off the wheel is a distraction, and people need to make sure they are completely focused on the task of driving safely. We're aware of the rapid growth of these types of technologies, and are currently evaluating the impact on driver distraction. Based on our research, we plan to establish guidelines for manufacturers to address distraction risks. Secretary LaHood has also been meeting with automakers to discuss these matters."
One of the organizations with a stake in the issue is the Itasca, Ill.-based National Safety Council.
"We've taken a look at the broad subject for the last two or three years," says David Teater, senior director of transportation initiatives. "We think the evidence is overwhelming that all cell phone conversations, regardless of whether they're taking place hands-free or not, are both distracting and a safety hazard. We have not found a single credible study that shows there's any safety improvement using hands-free devices. And at the same time, we have more than 25 peer-reviewed, published studies showing no safety improvement from using a hands-free device while driving," he says.
The council identifies three types of driving distractions:
- Visual. "If you're taking your eyes off the road to input destinations into a navigation system, that's a significant safety hazard," he says.
- Mechanical. That involves taking your hands from the wheel, causing a potentially hazardous situation. "But we've been doing that for years with manual transmissions," Teater admits.
- Cognitive distraction. Possibly the most dangerous of the three, this results when people's minds are not fully engaged in the task of driving. "That leads to what some researchers refer to as inattention blindness," Teater says. "You're looking at the road, but you're not seeing it because your mind is engaged in another task."/li>
The brain cannot truly multi-task. "It toggles tasks," he says. "It goes back and forth and switches between different tasks. That's why hands-free conversations are not safer. [With hands-free devices], you put one hand back on the wheel. But if you make a mistake, you can hurt or kill somebody."
Teater recommends that you drive without multi-tasking. In other words, don't use a cell phone when driving.
Just look at these numbers
The implications of using cell phones or other devices while driving are borne out in compelling statistics, says Teater. Car crashes are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. People under age 35 are more likely to die in a car crash than for any other reason, including disease. Approximately 35,000 people die annually in car crashes on highways. That's 100 people a day on average, Teater says.
Two components cause crashes. It depends on the dangerousness of the distraction and how often drivers are exposed to it. Cell phones are "off the charts" in frequency, he says, noting that NHTSA estimates that roughly 10 percent of drivers are talking on cell phones at any given moment.
There's an additional cost to all this distraction: Frequent accidents will increase your car insurance rates.
"So all that said, drivers need to focus on driving," Teater says. "They shouldn't be on the phone, and shouldn't be updating Facebook. They should be driving."
For more on information on distracted driving and its risks, visit NHTSA's distraction.gov.