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.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.