To Fix Distracted Driving, Experts Say Target The People, Not The Tech

Florida Highway Patrol Public Affairs Officer Joe Sanchez, second from right, shows Gov. Rick Scott a car that was recently i
Florida Highway Patrol Public Affairs Officer Joe Sanchez, second from right, shows Gov. Rick Scott a car that was recently involved in a fatal accident that is now being displayed in front of the Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School, Tuesday, May 28, 2013 in North Miami, Fla. Scott spoke to students at the school before signing a statewide ban on texting while driving into law. The law makes reading or sending a text, emailing and instant messaging on smart phones while driving a secondary offense, meaning police have to first stop drivers for another offense like an illegal turn. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

While car companies and tech firms have touted an ever-expanding line of devices that aim to curb texting at the wheel, experts argued Monday that eliminating distracted driving requires adjusting the driver, not the technology in his or her hands.

Rather than just convincing companies to disable their apps while a vehicle is moving or block access to certain tools in the car, lasting progress will come from educating drivers and convincing them to put safety ahead of immediate access to information, researchers said during a panel at the Governors Highway Safety Association conference. The association, a nonprofit that represents the country’s highway safety offices, focused this year's annual meeting on the risks and benefits of technology on the road.

"You can’t really talk about distraction and technology without considering the social context in which it happens because the social influences have always pushed bad behavior, even if you have good technology," said Nic Ward, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Montana State University. “Rather than focus on how technology can get around or force a behavior, I’d like to move further downstream and find ways for people to make the right decision beforehand.”

Ward suggested one solution might be to shift social norms to deemphasize instant information gratification and move away from the expectation that people should always be on and constantly connected. Joe Farrow, commissioner of the California Highway Patrol, agreed, saying that drivers should think of driving as they do flying: There will be a set period of travel time when there are no calls made, texts exchanged or emails sent.

"On the airplane, I can't talk to someone for an hour and fifteen minutes," Farrow said in an interview. "When you get in the car, all this should go away."

Technological solutions, such as limiting texting via car infotainment systems, often do little to correct bad driving habits, added David Stayer, a professor in the University of Utah's Department of Psychology. Stayer noted that drivers will often find ways around blocks their systems put in place, using their phone even if their in-car system prohibits it.

Even as experts see promise in talking directly to consumers, history suggests that would be only part of the solution. Farrow noted that current views on texting are analogous to attitudes toward seat belts in the 1980s. Making seat belt usage mainstream relied on a combination of regulation, education and enforcement. Curbing cell phone usage is likely to prove no different, the researchers agreed.

And far from discouraging drivers to tap into the Internet, the auto and tech industries have so far been working to make information even more accessible at the wheel. Eager to tap into the billions of hours a year Americans spend in traffic, Silicon Valley is gearing up for a battle over the dashboard: Drivers can now update Facebook via their Mercedes and will be able to chit-chat with Siri via their dash -- all part of a greater push by tech companies to colonize a new screen.

But Ward asked whether some tech companies might face a moral imperative to prevent people from accessing their offerings while at the wheel.

“If we accept that distraction is an issue for traffic safety, do these companies have a moral obligation to curtail their marketing and drive for more users in contexts that we know are risky?” Ward said. “You could imagine a social media site could make a decision that they want lots of users, but don't want users to engage in their services while it's dangerous, so they won't provide services while a vehicle is in motion.”

That, however, is unlikely, he conceded.

“We could choose not to text while driving. Companies or app companies could decide not to make it available while driving, but we don’t because our culture values immediacy and access at all times," he said. "That’s more profound in our decision-making than not killing the person next to us on the road.”