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Technology on the Road: Distractions vs. Safety

April 22, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
There's a race afoot along America's transportation routes between devices that make travel more dangerous and those that can make it safer. It's advancing technology vs. advancing technology, and it's not always easy to tell who's winning.

The spread of mobile communications has prompted worries about drivers distracted from the road by talking or texting on cell phones, behavior that has been shown to increase accident risks greatly. Crusaders in the hang-up-and-drive-dammit movement include U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and TV talk queen Oprah Winfrey. April, by the way, is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

Digital billboards have recently come in for criticism as well. "You can turn off your phone," Abby Dart, a Michigan billboard critic, told the New York Times last month. "The billboard gets your attention whether you want to give it or not."

Only about 2,000 changing-message billboards now exist in the United States, compared with 263 million cell phone subscribers--of whom 800,000 are estimated to drive while phoning or texting on any given day. Nearly 6,000 people died last year in U.S. crashes involving distracted or inattentive driving, and more than half a million were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Texting or phoning by train engineers has caused deadly transit crashes.

Even the hybrid-electric car, a technological advance that saves fossil fuel and cuts air emissions, has run into a safety glitch. Preliminary studies show that hybrids "have a significantly higher incidence of pedestrian crashes than internal combustion engines for certain maneuvers--like slowing or stopping, backing up, entering or leaving a parking space, and making a turn," NHTSA administrator David Strickland told the Detroit News. There's a special concern for blind pedestrians who can neither see nor hear these whisper-quiet vehicles.

Meanwhile, LaHood says he's worried about in-car entertainment systems that automakers are introducing. "Some of these car manufacturers are putting all these gadgets and bells and whistles that are going to distract people," he told the Detroit News. "And we're trying to get gadgets and bells and whistles out of their hands and out of their ears."

On the other hand, a host of other gadgets are coming onto the automotive market with the promise of making driving safer. Audi and Acura have offered pricey cruise control options that automatically slow down a car approaching the one ahead too closely. Some of BMW's 2011 models come with Parking Assistant, top view cameras, Frontal Collision Warning, Blind Spot Warning, Lane Departure Warning and Night Vision with Pedestrian Detection.

A proposal by Gov. Tim Pawlenty to step up use of alcohol ignition locks that keep drunken drivers off the road is advancing in the Minnesota Legislature this year.

Still in the technology pipeline: wireless traffic and road hazard warning systems, "electronic rumble strips" to jolt weaving drivers to attention, instant alert when a device detects a driver nodding off, even self-driving vehicles. What's next? George Jetson's fold-up flying car? But not long ago, now-familiar safety improvements such as seat belts, air bags, electronic stability control and antilock braking were considered nearly as far-fetched.

Better technology outside of cars also boosts driving safety. Some of it is pretty rudimentary: upgraded guard rails on dangerous curves, lighting at intersections, high-visibility road signs and pavement markings. On the higher-tech end, open-road tolling like that on Interstate Hwy. 394 in Minnesota and on turnpikes elsewhere eliminates toll plaza crashes and manages congestion that leads to accidents. Freeway on-ramp meters and traffic cameras combat gridlock, too.

Like the ramp meters, some roadside technologies that enhance safety face political obstacles. Minnesota so far has rejected cameras that automatically ticket red-light runners and speeders, although both devices have been shown to reduce accidents.

So which side is winning the race? Sharply declining traffic fatalities and injuries in Minnesota and across the country attest to the effect of technology's better angels. Less driving in the economic recession gets some credit, too.

Minnesota is one of six states to adopt a program called Toward Zero Deaths, which focuses on reducing speeding, drunken driving, distracted driving and failure to buckle up. It recently won an award from the International Road Federation in recognition of the state's 20 percent drop in fatalities and 45 percent reduction in serious injury crashes over the past decade.

Still, more than 400 people died on Minnesota roads last year. If we are to come even close to zero deaths on our highways, we'll have to get more serious about using technology that saves lives and stay away from the kind that distracts and kills.

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