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Chambers: How Technology Can Solve Distracted Driving

The last year brought a focus on distracted driving unseen before in the United States, with legislators and the White House calling for action. The topic isn’t new; distracted driving concerns have been around for decades. Over the years, knobs and dials, a hefty road atlas, a cup of coffee in one hand and breakfast in the other, in-vehicle personal grooming and talkative passengers have all been cited as dangerous distractions.

[IMGCAP(1)]Today’s driver distractions dwarf those of the past as cars and the systems on which they rely are more sophisticated and more connected to the outside world through phones, GPS devices, portable music and satellite radio players, and other in-car systems that draw eyes off the road and hands off the wheel.

Some view technology as a primary contributing factor to distracted driving and are calling for all systems and devices to be banned from cars. But ironically, technology is a powerful solution to the problem of distracted driving, which is why we need to take a different approach and closely evaluate how technology lets drivers make smarter decisions behind the wheel. Specifically, we need to examine how mobile voice technology will satisfy drivers and passengers’ needs while minimizing driver distractions.

Today’s technology lets people use their voices to dial numbers or call contacts, listen to incoming messages and respond by dictating a message, input destination information with their voice and hear turn-by-turn directions, and find and play music on infotainment systems — bringing the hands back on the wheel and eyes back on the road where they belong.

Moreover, voice technology is in use and in demand: According to recent Ford market research, among owners of the popular SYNC-equipped Ford vehicles, more than 60 percent say they use the voice controls while driving. And the Harris Interactive 2010 AutoTECHCAST study found that 35 percent of drivers say they’d likely adopt voice-activated controls or features in their vehicle, up from 27 percent just one year earlier.

Voice technology is a powerful solution for today’s issue of distracted driving, particularly in a society where people have embraced and are fully committed to a mobile lifestyle, and all the devices that lifestyle brings to the driver experience.

It’s worth reflecting for a moment to consider the unintended consequences of eliminating devices and in-car systems, if it were even the case that today’s drivers would give them up at all. Banning navigation technology would result in drivers relying on printed maps to get where they are going — looking down and flipping through various pages of the road atlas. Those addicted to their iPods will no doubt continue to scroll through a fully loaded iPod playlist with one hand while trying to catch a glimpse at the screen until they find the song they want to hear. And in times where product differentiation is critical in the automotive and consumer electronics industries, do we want to stifle innovation by restricting the advancement and introduction of mobile technologies?

We need a safer driving experience, not one that eliminates an experience altogether.

Let’s take advantage of voice technology to make our mobile environments safer and smarter, and integrate voice recognition as part of a three-pronged approach that manufacturers, consumers and lawmakers all need to embrace.

Manufacturers: Build devices and cars with mobile voice interfaces and make them accessible to the broader consumer market. As the aforementioned research shows, the consumer appetite is growing.

Consumers: Get educated about the dangers of distracted driving and how voice technology — which is key to hands-free control of phones, music players, navigation systems and more — can help people make smarter, safer decisions behind the wheel not only for the sake of yourself, but the sake of others on the roadways.

Lawmakers: Pointing the finger at technology as the problem denies the application of technology as a solution. It’s clear that voice-based technologies maintain hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, and voice can be implemented immediately as a component to potential legislation and driver education.

Federal public policy should be in place to combat the problem of distracted driving caused by these potentially distractive technologies. The ALERT Drivers Act proposed by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) bans the dangerous practice of texting while driving but supports the use of hands-free, voice-enabled technology. We see this as a balanced, realistic approach to solving the problem.

Voice recognition technology isn’t “Star Trek” science fiction. It’s available to consumers today and is a viable solution that can be implemented immediately to minimize those dangerous distractions. And it works. The longer we debate the causes of distracted driving, the longer we delay immediate solutions that will ultimately make our nation’s roads and highways safer for us all.

Steven G. Chambers is chief marketing officer and executive vice president at Nuance Communications Inc., which specializes in speech and imaging technologies.

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