FairWarining Investigates

Mixed Message?

While Assailing Driving Distractions, Automakers Pack in Tempting Gadgets


Saying it is “passionate” about the safety of young drivers, Ford Motor Co. is sponsoring clinics at U.S. high schools to urge teens to heed traffic laws and avoid distractions behind the wheel. The auto giant, as part of its “Driving Skills for Life” program, also recently awarded $25,000 to students who created the best music video about the hazards of distracted driving.

Likewise, BMW has launched ‘Don’t Text and Drive,’ a series of ads to dramatize the risks of distracted driving. And the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry trade group, is teaming with the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons in a similar campaign.

Through efforts like these, automakers are trying to position themselves as leaders in the fight against distracted driving, which federal authorities estimate caused 5,474 deaths in 2009, including 995 from using cellphones.

But even as they tell drivers to act responsibly and pay attention to the road, the companies are seeking to pump up sales by packing their new models with cutting-edge infotainment systems that encourage multi-tasking behind the wheel.

Ford’s SYNC system, for example, enables drivers to use voice commands and touch screens to make and receive calls, listen to their text messages, and choose from a menu of replies. BMW’s ConnectedDrive provides calling, e-mail and text read-backs, and displays headlines of the messages on a screen.

General Motors strutted its stuff with a Super Bowl ad of a young Chevy Cruze owner whose face lights up as he drives away and plays back the Facebook message: “Best first date ever…’’

Auto executives are counting heavily on arresting, high-tech features to boost sales, especially to younger buyers. David Mondragon, president of Ford Canada, put it bluntly: “The biggest turnoff to a twentysomething consumer is to put their life on hold when they sit in a car,” he said in a speech to the Canadian Marketing Assn., according to an account in The Globe and Mail.

“And what does it mean to put their life on hold? To get disconnected when they get in the car, to have a system that will not allow you to sit there and e-mail, read your BlackBerry, talk on the phone. So you have to have a seamless transition from your home to your transportation device, to your workspace. Or to your play space.” (Mondragon, through a spokeswoman, declined to be interviewed.)

Safety officials are worried about the trend. “I’m not in the business of helping people Tweet better,” groused David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, in a speech at a national conference in June.

Critics say that in highlighting distracted driving, automakers are hoping to inoculate themselves against tough scrutiny of their built-in systems. “The best defense is a good offense,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C. “One has to watch what auto companies do, versus what they say. While they say distracted driving is unsafe, they are making hundreds of millions of dollars by selling distracted driving technology.”

Industry officials, however, deny they are sending a mixed message about distracted driving. They say that drivers are so intent on staying connected that telling them to turn off their devices is a lost cause. By giving motorists built-in connections that are simpler and less distracting than portable devices such as cellphones and GPS, they say they are making the roads safer.

“Given that the driver has decided they are going to do something, it’s better to be doing it with their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel,” said Louis Tijerina, senior technical specialist in research and advanced engineering at Ford.

In fact,“Eyes on the road, hands on the wheel,” has become an industry mantra, particularly for Ford. More than a marketing slogan, it presents a fundamental challenge to the long-held precept that distraction involves not only the eyes and the hands, but the mind.

NHTSA’s official position, backed by a body of research, is that there are three types of distraction: visual, manual and cognitive. That is, even when a motorist is looking straight ahead, the cognitive demand of a phone conversation may cause “inattention blindness,” or a failure to respond to visual cues because the mind is somewhere else.

The evidence includes a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that found that drivers are four times more likely to crash when they are talking on the phone, whether using a hand-held or hands-free device.

Researchers at the University of Utah found that cellphone conversations slow drivers’ reactions as much as having a blood alcohol level at the legal limit of .08 percent. Moreover, in some fatal cellphone crashes, there is anecdotal evidence that drivers were simply talking — not dialing or groping for their phones.

However, automakers say that drivers have always multi-tasked, and can do it safely if they keep their eyes on the road. They have drawn ammunition from other research, including studies by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. These studies have found that visual and manual tasks can be serious distractions, but that there is little crash risk when drivers have their eyes on the road, “regardless of any other ‘cognitive demand,’ “ as one paper put it.

Even if on-board systems are better than portable devices, there is a question of whether they will become an ever-present temptation and cause drivers to “spend more time distracted in some way,” said Adrian Lund, president of the insurance institute.

“The honest answer is, we don’t know. This is an experiment we’re all in.”

The experiment is taking place in a regulatory vacuum, since there are no regulations to draw the line on electronic distractions.

Federal safety rules dictate the minimum strength of vehicle roofs and door latches, the performance of seat belts and airbags, the brightness of headlamps and stopping power of brakes. But when it comes to the design of electronic systems, vehicle makers are completely on their own.

It’s been that way since NHTSA, a decade ago, challenged the industry to use its best judgment and do the right thing. As Jeffrey Runge, NHTSA administrator during the George W. Bush presidency, put it in 2003: “We cannot regulate fast enough to keep up with technological advances, nor would we want to. This administration will always prefer voluntary brilliance to enforced compliance.”

“I understand that people get bored, they have other things they want to do, but they can pull over and do those without endangering the public.”

    — Henry Jasny, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety

Automakers responded by developing a set of voluntary guidelines. Among other things, they call for placing displays high enough that drivers can see them and scan the road at the same time.

They also provide that electronic tasks be simple enough that drivers can perform them without looking away from the road for more than two seconds at a time. That means that the most complex tasks, such as typing requests for directions, may be locked out when a car is in motion. Even so, a car traveling at 60 miles per hour covers 176 feet in two seconds — plenty of time for a deer, or a child, to run onto the road.

There has never been an independent review of the guidelines, nor monitoring of the companies’ compliance.

But under Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has called distracted driving “a deadly epidemic,” federal authorities are becoming more active.

NHTSA is developing its own set of guidelines, and this fall plans to publish the first phase — addressing visual and manual distractions. Guidelines for voice controls and portable devices will be covered in future phases. Portable electronics pose a special challenge because NHTSA has no legal authority over devices drivers bring into their cars.

But some fear it may be too late for regulators to assert control.

Henry Jasny, vice president and senior counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said that as long ago as the 1990s, his group urged NHTSA to prepare for an onslaught of high-tech electronics. Now, they’ve let ‘’the animals get out of the barn,” said Jasny, “and it may not be possible to get them back in.”

Meanwhile, automakers say that work by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has shown they’re on the right track.

The Blacksburg, Va., research center has extensive contracts with federal transportation agencies and private clients, including several automakers. For example, GM and Ford hired it to compare the safety of drivers using their built-in systems instead of portable devices. The built-in systems came out on top, and both automakers issued press releases to tout the favorable results.

The institute has pioneered the use of “naturalistic studies,’’ conducted by mounting cameras and sensors in vehicles to see what drivers were doing at the time of crashes, near-crashes, or lesser incidents such as veering out of lanes.

While the studies confirmed risks from drivers using electronic devices, they found that nearly the entire risk stems from dialing, texting or reaching for a phone or other device — and almost none of it from talking.

In one study of commercial truck and bus drivers, researchers reached the provocative conclusion that wireless conversations had a “protective effect.” That is, the crash risk dropped when drivers were on the phone.

The institute prepared safety tips that are posted on the website of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates commercial trucking. One of them is: “Turn Off Your Cell Phone While Driving.” Rich Hanowski, director of the institute’s Center for Truck and Bus Safety, said that in light of the institute’s research findings it will recommend softening the warning. (The National Transportation Safety Board earlier this month reached a much different conclusion, recommending that the motor carrier agency prohibit use of cellphones by commercial truckers.)

But to suggest “there’s no such thing as cognitive distraction…is obviously not right,” said David Strayer, a University of Utah researcher and co-author of the study that compared cellphone use with having a blood alcohol level of .08. “They’re really postulating a model that would run counter to the way we, as cognitive scientists, know how the brain works.”

Safety groups insist the best advice for drivers is still to turn off their devices.  

“We just don’t get why people should be encouraged not to pay attention to the driving task,” Jasny said. 

“I understand that people get bored, they have other things they want to do, but they can pull over and do those without endangering the public.”

DRIVE Coalition Hits a Wall
Lobbyists Target Distracted Driving Campaigns by Oprah, Ray LaHood
Do Cell Phones Kill 1,000 People a Year?

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About the author

Myron Levin is editor of FairWarning.

2 comments to “Mixed Message?”

  1. Mary Kay Kidwell

    Thank you, fairwarning.org, for featuring this issue. As someone who learned to drive a 1954 Chevy in the days when the only “gadget” was a poor excuse for a radio (no power steering, no power brakes, just a big heavy machine), I was taught to not only start the engine, work the clutch, shift gears as the situation demanded, etc., but to observe my surroundings, anticipate what other drivers might do, and basically pay attention.

    No one seems to focus on the intricacies of driving, especially in this age of speed and distraction. Vehicles have become accessories for our young people, and automakers cater to a strange need to be disconnected from reality, thereby shutting out important, often deadly, outside influences. Rather than enforce safe driving, we’re looking at solutions that will remove the driver from responsibility entirely. If you don’t want to be a responsible driver, take the train! Or a bus! Get off the roads!

    I am concerned that the majority of people I encounter nowadays are plugged in–in one way or another–seemingly to avoid their surroundings altogether (the solution to this would involve a psychological study).

    I am concerned that the quality of vehicles produced today is substandard (just take a look at the number of recalls announced every day); instead they are “loaded” with gadgets (I don’t see many gadget that save lives).

    And, I am concerned that those responsible for enfocing safety are influenced by politicians with their own agendas. I know that their methods for analyzing safety issues are based on numbers rather than on human life. They’ve lost touch with their basic mission.

    Thankfully, I learned to operate and control an unadorned car. More importantly, I learned to make focusing on my surroundings the primary use of my senses. It seems so simple. I wish it were.

  2. Rob Reynolds

    I appreciate this article for its content and because it covers the scope of the issue pretty well from many angles. However, the only thing that I would add is a victim’s perspective since the issue is affecting human lives and changing them irrevocably forever.

    Regarding the Super bowl ad, it saddens me to see such a huge distraction like anticipating and then processing important news while you drive. How many thoughts are racing through your head as you process a woman’s response to your first date?

    Inattention blindness is real. It happens when people engage in what would typically be a singular, cognitive activity (conversing, web surfing, working) and then add an equally taxing cognitive activity (like driving). The problem is, you make a mistake in one and you simply repeat your message; make a mistake in the other and the results can be damaging at best, fatal at worst.

    No one can predict when the mundane drive will take a momentary turn and become a split-second decision for the driver- the outcome of which will affect their life or another driver’s. People will ‘blank out’ for a moment, just as they so aptly show the guy do in the commercial, but notice how they offer no solution for his lapse in inattention? They simply show how easy and gratifying it is to do as he drives without incident. But is that real life?

    It’s sad that anyone would think that this is a good idea and that it could be deemed ‘safe’. Unfortunately for drivers and pedestrians in front of the drivers in these vehicles, there is no ‘opt in’ when they engage these attention-sapping entertainment options and implicitly say, “Hey, don’t worry people in front of me; I’ve got this under control. I’m really good at it.” Instead they make that choice for everyone and leave the consequences to something that’s been inaccurately labeled “just an accident”. But when you intentionally make the choice to abandon your driver responsibility for a few moments to catch up on your social network of choice, is it an accident?

    And if it’s so innocuous, so safe, will we be seeing these systems in school buses anytime soon? Cockpits? Too risky you say- then how about in your teenagers car? The 19 or 20 year old’s? Still a little uncomfortable? How about your kid’s grandparents? Who gets to say who can ‘handle’ this safely for the rest of us?

    Make no mistake, the auto industry is setting you up to do things you may not have dreamed of doing unless you had the cool gadget to enable you to do it already built into your car- and they are saying, “Hey, don’t worry, it’s ok. We think this is safe.” I mean, why else would they po$$ibly install it in your car if it wasn’t?

    I seem to recall the tobacco industry saying similar things about filters on cigarettes too.

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