Innovation Holds the Key to Driver Safety | Commentary

Even after almost 10 years of unveiling the latest consumer technology at the International CES, innovation and the ways it keeps us connected — no matter where we are — continues to amaze me. But innovation can also produce what economists refer to as negative externalities: an incessant urge to stay connected, even while we’re driving. And that connection can come at the expense of safety — for us, our families riding in our cars, the strangers with whom we’re sharing the road and everyone who’s hoofing it along sidewalks and crosswalks.

The legacy of technology in the vehicle is one driven by safety. From John Hetrick’s invention of the automotive airbag, to Saab’s decision in 1968 to make safety belts standard, to Richard Kearn’s invention of the intermittent windshield wiper. The long list of vehicle innovation has contributed significantly to safer driving. Early figures suggest the number of traffic fatalities fell in 2013 to the lowest level in 64 years. In more ways, consumer technology we bring into the vehicle also contributes to safer driving, from navigation systems to Bluetooth hands-free capabilities. But where should we draw the line in deciding which technologies truly make driving safer and which can potentially put us at greater risk on the road?

Drivers texting on mobile devices lead to thousands of fatal accidents every year, and there’s been a steady push for more stringent laws against cellphone use while driving. Today, 41 states and the District of Columbia ban texting, and 12 states plus D.C. ban any use of hand-held phones while driving. The rationale? If we can’t control our behavior behind the wheel, the government will do it for us.

As we work to address these real safety challenges, however, regulators must be careful not to impose blanket technology bans that could hurt the development of life-saving innovations like the long list of innovation preceding today. Technological innovation always moves faster than regulation — making even the most current regulation out of step with innovation. Certain common-sense laws — texting bans and strict limits on technology use by new drivers — help keep our roads safer. But ultimately innovation, not regulation, offers the greatest hope and solutions for driver safety. Most in-vehicle innovations were options before they were mandated, showing the market moves faster, and in the right direction, than regulation can. In fact, we are well on our way to putting fully autonomous cars on our roads, a game-changing innovation that will eliminate driver distraction completely.

Already, we’re seeing exciting changes and emerging technologies in our cars and devices that address the risk of inattention and improve everyone’s safety. Parking assistance, lane-correction assistance and rearview cameras are some of the more commonly recognized features. Other innovations are also now emerging on the market — blind-spot assistance, for example, features sensors on the rear bumper that alert drivers to obstacles in their blind spots. At CES, I’ve seen drowsiness detection technology that uses sensors to monitor if you are potentially nodding off or becoming inattentive and directs you to the nearest rest stop for some shut-eye.

The consumer electronics industry is committed to eliminating distracted driving. For example, the ORIGOSafe docking station makes sure your smartphone is safely stowed away while driving, while still allowing you to use your phone’s hands-free capabilities. ISimple’s products connect your smartphone to your car stereo — letting you make calls and listen to music using voice commands. And VOXX International’s Car Connection offers a free app that limits the use of Android and Blackberry smartphones while driving. GPS systems like the Magellan Smart GPS are becoming more comprehensive, too, allowing drivers to know what’s happening around them, from traffic and accidents to road and weather conditions. These technologies and other innovative solutions empower individuals to stay focused and drive smarter.

And there’s proof more and more of us are embracing these in-vehicle technologies. According to recent research by the Consumer Electronics Association, 47 percent of consumers are interested in using apps designed for easier and safer use in-vehicle.

The tech industry is focused on consumer education as a means of making our roadways safer. Last year AT&T launched the “It Can Wait” campaign to eliminate texting while driving, and CEA has developed a number of programs designed to educate us about the dangers of distracted driving and the tools available to curb the threat. Innovating Safety is an educational resource that provides information on safe solutions currently available on the market. And CEA’s Driver Device Interface Working Group is the largest and most diverse stakeholder group on the subject of driver safety.

We’ve become so accustomed to reaching for our phones that at times it can be hard to put them down and keep our hands firmly planted on the steering wheel. Distracted driving is a real issue that must be taken seriously. This April, Distracted Driving Awareness Month, think hard about how you can make your road travel safer for you and those around you. And know that the tech industry is leading the charge to make our roads safer, and future innovations will save lives and benefit drivers.

Shawn DuBravac is the chief economist and senior director of research for the Consumer Electronics Association.