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In our opinion: Tools against distraction

Published: Tuesday, March 25 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Distracted-driving legislation was passed in the final hours of the Legislature. But enabling drivers to do most of the tasks for which people currently use their phones when driving, new technology will help make the roads safer for everyone.

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The distracted-driving legislation SB253 that passed in the final hours of the legislative session was designed to clarify what Utahns can and can’t do with a mobile phone when they’re behind the wheel of a car. Bill sponsor Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said the measure was designed to counter Utah’s “ambiguous” prohibition against texting while driving.

“Police have a tough time enforcing [the texting-while driving law],” Urquhart told BYU’s Daily Universe, “because they’ll pull someone over and say it looked like you were texting, and they’ll say no, I was playing solitaire or doing something else on my phone.”

The new law adds a host of new specifics defining which motorist phone activities are forbidden. Drivers can no longer access the Internet, create or view video or enter any kind of data into their phones, including dialing a phone number. Urquhart insists that the law “deals with any and all manipulation of a device.” The assumption seems to be that this law addresses all dangers associated with the use of cellular phones while driving.

While we applaud the intent behind this legislation, there are flaws inherent in this approach. Drivers are still free to talk on cellphones, even without “hands-free” technology. They’re also allowed to use the phone for GPS applications. That means that someone pulled over can now simply shift the excuse for distracted driving to one of the still-legal cellphone uses. Unless the use of mobile phones while driving was barred altogether — a move that would be unwise — it is very difficult to plug all the loopholes that users might want to exploit to avoid breaking the law.

Thankfully, technology and common sense may be on the way to solving this problem.

More and more cars are incorporating GPS and cellphone communication directly into the operating system of their vehicles, through Bluetooth and other wireless communication systems. In the past, such options were prohibitively expensive for most drivers, but now they are becoming standard features. In addition to lower costs, it’s becoming increasingly easier to communicate — including using voice recognition tools to send text messages — without ever having to handle an actual phone.

Examples of voice recognition include AAMP of America’s iSimple InSeam system, or Cobra Joyride’s smart charger, in which pushing a button triggers several different customizable apps without the need for the driver to take his or her eyes off the road. And Plantronic’s Voyager Legend is a headset that lets the wearer take a call without a click. All of these and other technologies are examples of the consumer electronics industry’s noteworthy “Innovating Safety” program.

By enabling drivers to do most of the tasks for which people currently use their phones when they’re driving, new technology will help make the roads safer for everyone.

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