WASHINGTON -- In 1930, former Massachusetts state senator George Parker tried to ban car radios because they were too distracting. He invoked the ire of both the Radio Manufacturers Association and motorists, who loved driving to music, even though early radios were expensive and sometimes burst into flames. After consumers protested at his office, Parker dropped the effort and decided to focus on drunken driving instead.
Drivers today are similarly attached to their cellphones and in-car technology. But unlike the drivers of the 1930s, they're conflicted over efforts to regulate them. While a survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found 94% of drivers consider texting while driving "a serious threat" and 87% favor texting bans, more than a third admitted reading a text or e-mail while driving in the past month. Nearly 70% of drivers reported talking on their cellphone while they were driving.
The disconnect doesn't end there. There's disagreement among safety experts over whether there even is a distracted-driving crisis and just who should have to solve it - the auto or cellphone industry. As car- and phonemakers work together to reduce distractions by better linking mobile devices with cars, some safety advocates and federal officials say that's also too risky.
Car safety regulators and investigators have been transfixed by distracted driving since Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made it a key priority in 2009. State legislators, with the apparent support of constituents, have been moving at a speed believed unprecedented in highway safety history to enact laws banning texting and, less speedily, handheld cellphones. In December, the National Transportation Safety Board called on states to ban both handheld and hands-free cellphone use while driving.
Meanwhile, there is scant research on the role cellphones and other visual and cognitive distractions play in crashes - largely because police reports are unreliable in this area. NHTSA says cellphones were a factor in about 13% of fatal crashes last year. But the agency proposed guidelines in February that would first deal with potential distractions from navigation systems and other in-car technology.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety questions whether the federal efforts are premature or at least misdirected. The institute, funded by insurers, thinks there should be more focus on technologies that help motorists avoid crashes - such as automatic braking and lane-departure warnings - because those would help prevent crashes no matter what distracts drivers.
"Distracted driving is a problem, but it isn't new, and the data don't show that it has gotten worse during the rise of cellphones and the use of other electronics by drivers," says IIHS spokesman Russ Rader. "While all the studies clearly show cellphone use is a distraction, the use of phones by drivers hasn't resulted in an epidemic of crashes."
Who should so something?
Despite the questions, Peter Kissinger, CEO of AAA's safety foundation, says both the auto and cellphone industries need to do more on distraction.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration "and the industry both seem to agree that the primary focus should be on ensuring the safety of integrated communications technologies, and seem to assume that if it is integrated it will be safe. I don't," Kissinger says. "And, clearly, the missing player is the mobile device suppliers ... since many more of these devices are being carried into the car."
At an NTSB distracted-driving forum last month, safety officials for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Global Automakers testified, along with auto industry consultants and other safety experts. The cellphone industry sent handouts.
"We did encourage them to participate if they wanted to, but we can't require anyone to do it," NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman says of the cellphone industry.
CTIA spokesman John Walls says, "We were pleased to attend and distribute safe-driving tips related to appropriate wireless use while you're behind the wheel."
Cellphone industry representatives also dropped out of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers' efforts in the early 2000s to develop voluntary guidelines to prevent distractions, according to Rob Strassburger, alliance safety vice president, who hopes they will "once again join us as we move forward."
Now, carmakers are fighting NHTSA's plan to tighten those industry guidelines and turn them into federal guidelines before the wireless industry gets its own standards. Among the changes proposed: locking out functions, such as the ability to input an address into a navigation system while the car is moving.
"We strongly fear that lockouts on systems we tested as safe will entice some drivers to pick up a handheld," says Tom Baloga, BMW engineering vice president. "This will have a terrible unintended consequence. Small screens, tiny keys, fonts and touch-screen targets on portable devices are clearly less suited for use while driving."
Cellphone makers and service providers are "answering the bell" on distracted driving, Walls says, citing apps that drivers can download to turn off their phones while driving. Asking his industry to meet distraction guidelines could slow the introduction of these and other advancements, he says.
And though NHTSA says 17% of all crashes involve some type of distraction, just 3% involve devices or controls integrated in the vehicle. "There's no question it's safer if (communication) is brought in through the vehicle," says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist studying cognitive distraction at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab. "Stumbling for the falling phone is problematic."
While there's some friction in Washington between the two industries, they are under more pressure than ever to work together and are doing so. About 99% of new cars have Bluetooth capability to link phones with vehicles, according to car shopping website Edmunds.com.
Even secretive Apple is working with car companies before its phones come out. After all, no company wants an "Apple executive with a new phone that won't charge" in his car, Baloga says.
BMW sends a mobile test bed known as "the suitcase" to phone companies including Apple and gets about 80 phones a year to test with their cars. This suitcase includes a radio receiver and Bluetooth module and is used by phone handset makers to test their devices. It helps phonemakers see "how this new phone would work in a BMW without having a BMW present," says Doug Claus, BMW's product requirements and development manager.
Car Connectivity Consortium
Toyota also works closely with Apple out of its own Silicon Valley office near Apple's Cupertino, Calif., campus.
Most car- and phonemakers are also working together in an effort dubbed the Car Connectivity Consortium, which is developing open standards for what smartphones linked to cars can do. When vehicles and phones meet the group's MirrorLink standard, it should eliminate the need for per-device, advance testing for compatibility.
"There is a need to bring the two industries together," says CCC President Mika Rytkonen, who is also phonemaker Nokia's director of industry collaboration. The group's goal, he says, is to make "use of smartphones more convenient and safer."
It is certainly in the interest of both industries to do so. IIHS has been one of the only voices to dismiss suggestions that cellphones are causing people to crash and to suggest anti-texting and handheld cellphone laws have had little effect. But they aren't alone in their contention that hands-free calling is likely no safer than handheld phone use. That could lead states to follow NTSB's recommendation to ban all phone use in cars, a blow to efforts to integrate phones as well as Internet and social-media usage into vehicles.
Talking on the phone and driving is "something consumers have become used to," says Alfred Tom, chairman of the consortium's ecosystem work group and a General Motors advanced "infotainment" researcher. "We think that there's a way to feel connected, while keeping primary focus on the driving."
Making synching work
The consortium has 60% of phonemakers and 70% of automakers, with the most notable exceptions being Apple and Nissan. The group says it started with phone- and carmakers as they were the most important to have on board to make synching work. The service providers shouldn't be a problem, says Tom, as they "want people to be able to use phones in all places. The more people use their phones, the more revenue they get."
Meanwhile, the National Safety Council's David Teater says data on cellphone-related crashes is so bad, it would almost be better for the distracted-driving cause if there were no crash data at all. Teater has a very personal reason to want data collection improved: His 12-year-old son, Joe, died when Teater's car was struck by a young woman who ran a red light while talking on a cellphone.
Efforts by police to subpoena phone records from service providers have been unsuccessful, he says, because of privacy concerns and problems getting search warrants to justify subpoenas.
While Teater says he agrees with "99%" of what IIHS does, he couldn't disagree more with the institute's take on distracted driving. He says crashes are down in part because of safer vehicles and roads, although IIHS says that wouldn't reduce the number of fender benders, which are down along with all other types of crashes. But the institute does agree there's a problem with police data. One California study that concluded the state's handheld cellphone ban was working was based on what drivers told police they were doing at the time of their crashes. IIHS' Rader notes, "When you make something illegal, people are less likely to tell police they were doing it."
Mike Riggs, writing in Reason magazine last month, used former senator Parker's efforts to ban car radios as an example of the kind of bureaucratic overkill he thinks LaHood is guilty of.
"American drivers will continue to adjust to in-car features, just as they learned, almost a century ago, to hunt down (a radio show) on the AM dial while chugging along in their Studebaker Phaetons and Ford Model A's - without crashing," wrote Riggs.
MIT's Reimer, whose research is funded by automakers, government and foundations, says it's impossible to say whether regulators are overreacting because the data are still so sketchy.
"In some sense, there is a distracted-driving problem," Reimer says. "But how dangerous is it? We don't know yet."