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Fed Plan for Phone GPS App Regulation Latest Reason Why Status Quo Sucks

Having successfully vilified texting and cell phone use while driving our Federal overlords are moving on to their latest target–cell phone GPS app regulation. For some reason they’ve decided that there’s a veritable slaughterhouse of Google Maps distracted deaths on US highways and that since we as citizens don’t have the good sense to take care of ourselves Federal smart phone GPS app regulation is the only answer. Obviously factory installed GPS equipment will be exempted–can’t put those auto industry campaign contributions at risk. In fact, it is the auto industry that is most forcefully advocating for the GPS app regulation.

No one disputes the fact that ‘distracted driving’ is a bad thing and causes a lot of accidents. It’s hard to determine exactly how many accidents are due to driver inattention of some sort since there’s countless studies that suggest different things. A lot of this data doesn’t make clear whether driver distraction contributed to the accident or caused the accident and everyone knows that correlation isn’t the same thing as causation. I researched the subject for several hours today and it’s almost impossible to find accurate causality data and even more difficult to find data on what specifically causes distractions that lead to accidents (more about that in a moment). You see a lot of narratives where a driver is following the car ahead of them too closely while talking on their cellphone and had to slam on their brakes which were poorly maintained and didn’t stop in time. Talking on the phone likely contributed to the accident but it’s hard to suggest that it caused the accident any more than did old fashioned bad driving and poor car maintenance. For the sake of argument, however, I think everyone can agree that drivers should pay attention to what is happening on the road and avoid any type of distraction.

HOW NOT TO SOLVE A PROBLEM:

Hand wringing over distracted driving is nothing new, nor is attempting to blame new technology for causing it all. Back in the 1930’s the au courant tech punching bag was all of the new fangled radios being installed in cars. Legislators and safety minded scolds called for fines and bans but once a powerful industry lobby (the Radio Manufacturers Association) flexed their muscles the ‘problem’ went away and radios in cars became ubiquitous. Jump cut to today and cellphones, texting and now GPS apps are the targets of politicians, the clueless mainstream media, ‘health and safety advocates’ and their usual co-conspirators. Bans and regulation are commonplace such as Nevada’s requirement of a hands free device for cellphones despite no real evidence suggesting that laws of this type actually reduce accidents.

More significantly, distracted driving has multiple causalities that likely result in many more accidents than the aforementioned tech diversions but there’s minimal concern about anything other than the ‘unholy trinity’ of texting, cellphones and GPS. That’s where this gets really strange–there’s almost no recent data or research that attempts to determine what does cause distracted driving. I read countless ‘distracted driving’ studies that specifically mention the danger of cellphone use/texting without bothering to address the myriad other causes. The few that did completely ignored some obvious major distractions like children in cars. The only information I could come up with that detailed causes of distracted driving came from the Canadian Auto Association (CAA) and is based on a combination of independent studies and research the CAA did in conjunction with their US counterparts. The conclusions are often contradictory–they assert on one page that drivers sending text messages are ’23 times more likely’ to be in an accident than non distracted drivers based on an independent study while on the next page their own research concludes that cellphones are the cause of only 1.5% of distracted driving accidents. Try as I might I couldn’t find anything that suggests there’s any real problem with smart phone GPS apps causing distractions–and definitely nothing that suggests Federal GPS app regulation is necessary.

So what else causes distracted driving? The CAA research concludes that the majority of distractions are *outside* the car (29.9%). The biggest in-car distractions are the radio/CD player (11.4%) and ‘other vehicle occupants’ (10.9%). Other distractions include ‘something moving in the car’, ‘using another object or device’, ‘eating/drinking’, ‘adjusting climate control’. They also conclude that children are ‘four times more distracting than adults’ as passengers with infants being ‘eight times as distracting’ but otherwise doesn’t address the distraction caused by dealing with children while driving. Other studies came up with more distractions that the CAA missed including singing, applying make up, shaving, smoking, and sexual activity.

ATTACKING A SYMPTOM WHILE IGNORING THE REAL PROBLEM:

If distracted driving is so bad why single out cellphones, texting and GPS? Why not pass laws that criminalize ‘distracted driving’ and cover everything? Why no media hysteria about singing in the car, eating fast food or driving with children? An immediate answer is that there are huge political downsides of attacking driving with kids (‘anti-family’), fast food (‘elitist’) or applying makeup (‘sexist’). Technology doesn’t present these problems, at least in the eyes of status quo institutions like politicians, regulators and mainstream media. In their world cellphones are only used by evil upper class white males and text messages only used by evil irresponsible teenagers. The roads were safe for decent people until greedy capitalists starting using cellphones and juvenile delinquents started text messaging and that’s when the body count started to mount (never mind that overall traffic deaths have declined while cellphone use has exploded).

It also fits nicely into the status quo’s technophobia–every new technology is ‘bad’ in this world view and has alarming downside risks. No amount of common sense or lack of statistical validation can provide refutation–not that politicians would consider it or the media report it. The government’s newfound concern about GPS apps is especially silly compared with the more persistent distraction of the ‘analog’ solution to finding your way around–reading a road map.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with government efforts to make driving safer but why not also address poor driving habits (tailgating, speeding, etc.) or poorly maintained cars? If the goal is to reduce the number of accidents or fatalities addressing these issues could have more ‘bang for the buck’. Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with educating drivers on the importance of staying focused on the road. Distracted driving is certainly more dangerous than non-distracted driving. If it’s as dangerous as advertised it should be treated more honestly and holistically addressing all of the causes of the problem. It would also be much more effective in improving highway safety than simply attacking and demonizing new technological trends and the behaviors they create.

About James Murphy

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