Distracted Driving Is a Public Safety Concern | Commentary

Posted April 30, 2014 at 4:00am

Distracted driving has been a growing public safety concern for me, as it has for the Department of Transportation, safety advocates and the countless families who fear losing a loved one because of a driver focused on something other than driving. Distractions have always been present in the car, but the face of this problem has completely changed with the evolution of modern technology. Now, drivers can talk, text and search for information on a smartphone, further drawing their attention away from the road.

It’s true that much of this new technology offers benefits for drivers. Advanced mapping and navigation systems help drivers get to where they want to go without having to fight with paper maps. The wide array of music and news apps provides drivers with more listening options than ever. But if these technologies pull the driver’s focus away from the road, the risks of a tragic accident occurring are simply too high.

We have made substantial progress in making our drivers more aware of the dangers associated with distraction. Congress, the Department of Transportation and other agencies and organizations have joined together in urging drivers to focus on the road. At the local level, 43 states have enacted tough distracted driving laws by banning text messaging for all drivers. Several have even made it illegal for novice drivers to use their cellphones behind the wheel — a strong step against distracted driving that I believe more states should take.

Auto companies and smartphone manufacturers also have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to be a part of the solution. Much of their focus today seems to be on providing drivers with the same features and connectivity in their car that they have on their smartphones. They have argued that in-car “infotainment” systems which mirror the temptations of smartphones are actually safer than the alternatives. To me, this reasoning ignores one simple and critical fact — if the driver’s eyes are on a screen, they’re not on the road.

It is my hope that major industry stakeholders will do more to use their brands, resources and market share to limit distractions and save thousands of lives each year. In February, I convened a daylong summit in the Senate Commerce Committee which brought together smartphone manufacturers, wireless carriers, operating system developers and automakers, as well as government regulators and safety advocates.

Our discussion revolved around the significant collaboration underway among industries to develop systems that could encourage drivers to put down their phones or otherwise render them unusable for the driver. During the discussion, everyone seemed to agree that the technology already exists for improved products and services that would limit distracted driving. I was pleased to see this consensus.

I also discussed with summit participants industry’s civic responsibility to save lives from distracted driving, and implored them to act boldly and act now. As an example, parents could be given tools to limit distractions for their teenage drivers so their son or daughter can’t talk on the phone, text or update social networking sites while driving. We’ve also heard from plenty of experienced drivers who want the same ability to limit their own smartphone’s functionality while they’re behind the wheel. And many employers are seeking ways to prohibit their employees from texting or talking while driving company cars.

Mobile device-makers, software developers, automakers and wireless carriers could — and should — implement widely available, accessible and seamless solutions that prevent distractions from our smartphones. It’s no secret that I believe companies must fight the urge to feed into consumers’ need for connectivity, without taking into account the safety implications. We all know the car is a unique environment. It’s not a park bench or a subway station. That’s why, for everyone’s safety, the driver’s attention is needed on the road.

I have spent significant time working to prevent distracted driving. To me, this is a critical public safety issue that requires involvement from all sectors if we are to achieve an all-of-the-above solution. If car companies, smartphone manufacturers, wireless carriers and software developers have the tools to join in this solution — and they’ve said they do — then I believe they should help focus drivers on the road ahead.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.