The DoT is evaluating tech that would disable cell phones by drivers to reduce the number of distracted driving deaths.
- Roughly 5,500 people died from distracted driving last year.
- The Department of Transportation is considering disabling cell phones inside cars.
- Laws are unlikely to change behavior, contend some experts.
In addition to its efforts to educate drivers about the dangers of distracted driving, the U.S. Department of Transportation is evaluating technology that would disable cell phones in automobiles. The move is a response to the growing number of deaths and injuries related to distracted driving.
"There's a lot of technology out there now that can disable phones and we're looking at that," Raymond LaHood, the Secretary of Transportation said during a discussion during MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "That's one way. But you have to have good laws, you have to have good enforcement, and you have to have people take personal responsibility. That's the bottom line."
In addition to his comments on disabled cell phones, LaHood also announced a new video campaign, "Faces of Distracted Driving." The series of online videos tells the stories of several victims of distracted driving. The DoT plans to add a new video every few weeks.
LaHood said that nearly 5,500 people died from distracted driving last year, and that about half a million were injured. That's a low estimate, according to Paul Atchley, a scientist at the University of Kansas who studies distracted driving.
LaHood's figures only account for known deaths or injuries -- suspected deaths or injuries aren't included. The real numbers, said Atchley, are likely far higher, and will only get higher.
While there is no federal law against using a cell phone while driving a vehicle, dozens of states prohibit texting while driving in an effort to reduce the number of deaths or injuries. Several other states forbid drivers from using hand-held cell phones.
Hardware, such as cell phone jammers, are illegal, and the FCC isn't likely to approve any kind of jamming equipment. That would leave software from companies like Zoomsafter, tXtBlocker and iZup.
While the specifics differ, the general idea is the same. When a cell phone or a vehicle exceeds a certain speed, determined by the car and transmitted via Bluetooth or by the speed of the cell phone itself as measured by cell phone towers, the phone is automatically disabled.
That won't work, said Atchley. Most of these services are voluntary. It is not difficult for users to either not activate them, or to work around them.
The real answer to the problem is a change in people's attitudes. The research on drunk driving and distracted driving is quite similar, but the reactions of people to both are far different.
"When we ask young drivers about drunk driving, they say that judges should throw the book at drunk drivers, but not the person texting while driving," said Atchley.
"The bottom line is that people want to use these devices," said Atchley. "And things are going to get worse before they get better."