When distracted driving entered the national consciousness about ten years ago, the problem was mainly people who made calls or sent text messages from their cellphones. The solution then was to introduce new technologies to keep drivers’ hands on the wheel. After declines over the last four decades, highway fatalities last year recorded the largest annual percentage increase in 50 years. And the numbers so far this year are even worse. The Florida Highway Patrol is investigating an Oct. 26 crash near Tampa that killed five people. A passenger in one car recorded a Snapchat video showing her vehicle traveling at 115 m.p.h. just before the collision. The Department of Transportation outlined a plan to work with the National Safety Council and other advocacy groups to devise a “Road to Zero” strategy. This is a goal of eliminating roadway fatalities within 30 years. The majority of new vehicles sold today have software that connects to a smartphone and allows drivers to place phone calls, dictate texts and use apps hands-free.
The automobile industry says that these systems enable customers to concentrate on driving while interacting with their smartphones. Deborah Hersman, president of the nonprofit National Safety Council and a former chairwoman of the federal National Transportation Safety Board, said it was not clear how much those various technologies reduced distraction or just encouraged people to use even more functions on their phones while driving. And freeing the drivers’ hands does not necessarily clear their heads. “It’s the cognitive workload on your brain that’s the problem,” Ms. Hersman said.
Technology in some new cars is meant to reduce driver distractions or compensate for them. Some vehicle’s even warn the driver if they drift out of their lane on the highway or if a car is in their blind spot. But new cars make up only a small portion of the 260 million vehicles on the road. Insurance companies, who closely track auto accidents, are convinced that the increasing use of electronic devices while driving is the biggest cause of the rise in road fatalities.