Americans are both extremely sociable and gadget-obsessed. While these two generally admirable traits have led to many exciting innovations, when combined with driving a car they can be dangerous and even lethal.
Federal safety officials say an estimated 3,092 deaths in 2010 were caused by drivers distracted by gadgetry. Many states have bans of one sort or another on texting, talking or browsing while driving, but enforcement is spotty and, frankly, the allure of these devices for drivers is simply too great. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says a driver's eyes should not be off the road more than two seconds to use these devices but obviously that's not happening.
This past week, NHTSA asked automakers to voluntarily install safeguards in their cars that would automatically disable many of these activities — text messaging, Internet browsing, phone dialing — unless the vehicle is stopped and in park.
NHTSA makes exceptions for safety features such as proximity devices. Perhaps some of the regulators are old enough to remember trying to read a big, flapping road map while driving because there's a partial exception for GPS devices. But officials are asking the automakers to ensure that the GPS can only be manually programmed while the car is in park. The feds are also considering exceptions for devices that are completely out of the driver's sight and thus operable only by the passengers.
There is a limit to what disabling these devices will do because most smartphones can do everything the dashboard devices do. Like seatbelt use, the campaign against distracted driving will have to be a combination of better technology, public service campaigns, law enforcement and an accumulation of horror stories like the teenager who sent or received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes before he was killed.
However, a solution to the entire problem may already be in the works. Nevada is laying out the regulatory framework for self-driving cars. State law already has an exception for texting from a self-driving car operating on autopilot.
The solution to distracted driving may be as simple as eliminating the driver.