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.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.