- - Monday, April 18, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

We’re all guilty of it. When we’re behind the wheel and hear the familiar buzz indicating the arrival of a new text message or email, it’s tempting to reach over and take a glance. But no matter how good at multitasking we think we are, every time we take our eyes off the road to quickly respond to an email or answer a phone call, we’re significantly increasing the chance we’ll be involved in an accident.

Because of the danger this behavior poses to all drivers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have proclaimed April Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

The research is clear — distracted driving is alarmingly common and dangerous.

New data from Harborview Medical Center in Seattle shows 1 out of every 10 drivers is on his or her cellphone. And a survey released this month from Kelly Bluebook shows 61 percent of drivers continue to multitask while driving.

It may not seem as though it takes much time to find a new song on your playlist or dial a phone number. However, NHTSA data shows distracted drivers take their eyes off the road for an average of five seconds. Driving at 55 mph, that means the average distracted driver is covering the length of an entire football field without looking where he’s going. Distracted drivers are three times more likely to be involved in a car crash.

It’s little wonder the NHTSA finds distracted driving accounts for 25 percent of all traffic accidents. Part of the blame must be levied on automakers. Even as the research showing the dangers of distracted driving has piled up, car companies have raced to put more attention-stealing gadgets in their cars. Now, you can update your Twitter or Facebook status while speeding down the highway.

Most drivers assume that if these fancy features are integrated into the car’s computer system, they’re safer than looking down at their phones. That’s simply not the case. The NTSB has long called for a complete ban on cellphone use in cars — even hands-free devices. Research shows that even when we’re using voice-activated controls rather than manually pressing buttons, our minds are still distracted from the road.

Researchers at the University of Utah have shown drivers talking on a hands-free cellphone are as impaired as drivers with blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels at the legal limit (. 08). Yet many more drivers are on their cell phones at any given time than have had a few drinks, making distracted driving a more common traffic safety threat than DWI.

Ironically, automakers are plowing millions of dollars into a federal research program to put alcohol-sensing technology in all new cars while they increase distracted driving possibilities.

Earlier this month, Honda and Hitachi unveiled a new “smart key” that can detect drivers’ BAC levels through the same key that starts their cars. Conceivably, this will be engineered so that if a driver is over the legal limit, the key will not allow the car to start.

The NHTSA is using tens of millions of taxpayer dollars and matching funds from major automakers to develop the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS), passive alcohol sensors that are intended to be integrated into all new cars to detect a driver’s BAC level before he or she can start the car.

Spoiler alert: Even if these devices are manufactured to the highest level of performance, meaning they work 99.9997 percent of the time, given the number of cars on the road they’ll still malfunction thousands of times every day. That’s sober drivers stranded trying to leave work or pick up the kids from soccer practice or worse — drunk drivers being allowed to start their cars. Think of it as a lottery every time you try to drive. Not only will these devices fail to work perfectly, but they could stop social drinkers from having a single glass of wine with dinner before driving home.

Due to legal and liability concerns, the devices will have to be set with a “safety margin” to ensure drivers do not start their cars while under the legal BAC limit only to have their alcohol levels rise over the course of their trip. As the former head of the DADSS research program has admitted, the devices will be set below the legal limit, conceivably as low as .03 or .04 which begins to get into prohibition territory.

In the future, Washingtonians may be able to tell their smart cars to update their social media statuses celebrating the latest Capitals’ or Nationals’ victory. But they may not be able to enjoy one or two beers at the game if they want to drive home. That’s not exactly a win for traffic safety. This Distracted Driving Month, automakers should consider dumping the distraction technology and make our highways safer.

Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.

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