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No Hands-Free Phones In Cars: Why Stop There?

Let's outlaw distracting passengers in the name of safety. Or perhaps we can regulate a one-gag-per-passenger rule.

When the National Transportation Safety Board released its recommendations in December about banning all mobile devices from vehicles, hands-free or not, I managed to keep my mouth shut and drive on. After all, it was just another government agency recommendation without any legislative authority.

But this week, one North Carolina city passed a law making it illegal to use all cell phones while driving. I can stay silent no longer.

Well-meaning laws like this one get passed because lawmakers think it's possible to regulate society into 100% safety. So as government entities fall in line with the NTSB's recommendation, attempting to change our poorly thought-out behavior and subvert our free will, why not go all the way?

-- Outlaw GPS devices. While many people use these safely to great benefit, and while there are big DO NOT USE WHILE IN MOTION warnings when you turn these on, I've seen people start fussing with a GPS while the vehicle is in motion. Yeah, it's stupid behavior, but we can legislate that away, right?

-- Outlaw fuel gauges, particularly for those of us who stay in the red-line zone. Constantly checking these gauges while driving isn't conducive to 100% safety.

-- Outlaw in-car audio systems. The distraction possibility is obvious. We also need to protect drivers from content-induced road rage. Is Twisted Sister or Breaking Benjamin an appropriate soundtrack for defensive driving? Hardly.

-- Outlaw passengers. Drivers with passengers are almost 60% more likely to get into a crash resulting in injury than those without passengers. Forget those carpools. Or perhaps we can mandate one-gag-per-passenger to stop those carpool chatty Cathys and whiny children and backseat drivers. Backseat drivers cause one out of seven near misses or accidents. Regulate 'em!

You get the point. Overreaction, while not as bad as underreaction, is still a problem. It's impossible to become 100% safe, so rather than try to stuff the genie back into the bottle, we should try to make what we have safer. Technology innovation isn't just good for companies--it's also good for families and individuals.

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Mobile devices in vehicles, especially with advances in "ambient location" that require no user intervention, can help us save fuel, operate our fleets, and manage our service personnel more efficiently. (Has a customer canceled? Time to reroute to the next service call.) Mobile technology can even increase safety by alerting us, in advance, to hazards. It's simply not OK for regulators to outlaw innovation.

I feel for the families who have experienced tragedies related to mobile technology used in vehicles, but the technology itself wasn't the cause--it was the inappropriate use of it. Let's get people to change their behaviors without outlawing the technology.

CIOs have a role in promoting mobile and vehicle safety. It's insane to text or email while driving, and CIOs need to make it very clear to employees that such behavior on the job won't be tolerated. CIOs must make sure that their mobile device policies are sensible and enforceable.

I know of one large pharma company that has a hands-free-only mobile device policy, by which it means: "No screwing around with headsets while you're behind the wheel." To make compliance easy, the company also pays, without question, for hands-free technology to be installed in employee vehicles, whether it's a personal or company-owned vehicle.

This isn't just an IT issue; it's one that requires the involvement of HR, risk management, and even others in the C-suite.

Make no mistake, this is a technology and policy area rife with problems. But in a society that understands the tradeoffs of risks and benefits, it's an area ripe for innovation. A courageous society faces problems head-on and tries to solve them. A fear-based one hides behind regulation. What kind of society will we be?

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at or at @_jfeldman.

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User Rank: Apprentice
4/2/2012 | 6:55:48 PM
re: No Hands-Free Phones In Cars: Why Stop There?
I believe that the majority of drivers, at least in my area, should have their licenses stripped from them. I'm tired of being rear-ended, run off the road, or forced to dodge other drivers who are too busy with their cellphones, electronics, etc to pay attention to the road. I have no opinion on hands free kits (apathy, what can I tell you) but, don't see much sense in outlawing their usage. Again, laws for the sake of laws.

While corporations do share an ethical burden in communicating reasonable mobile device usage, I feel really that the bulk or this burden should fall on the individual users sense of self-preservation. But then, I also firmly believe that Darwinism must be allowed to play its role.

It's impossible to wrap the world in safety foam and expect the forward march towards social and economic nirvana to proceed. Really, though, unnecessary and even unconstitutional law has been the trend with legislation since at least the Carter years. We wont, of course, solve that problem through discussions on IW.
User Rank: Strategist
4/2/2012 | 2:06:02 PM
re: No Hands-Free Phones In Cars: Why Stop There?
While there are MANY ways people are stupid and inattentive while driving, cell phones do seem to have a near-magical ability to lower the user's IQ by about half. One of my favorite examples is the moron who gave me an apologetic smile and wave of the hand holding his cell phone after I avoided his oblivious lane change by mere inches.

Too many laws are bad, but, to correct Hillary's favoite saying, "It takes a village to raise an idiot." Society needs a mechanism to correct bad behaviour; laws are one option, shame was the other traditional method. Despite society's current teaching that value judgement is somehow wrong, I'd call on everyone to actually let people know that they are doing wrong when they endanger others with distracted driving, whether induced by phone use, GPS or farding.
Andrew Hornback
Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/1/2012 | 2:31:38 AM
re: No Hands-Free Phones In Cars: Why Stop There?
Why not simply mandate that all employee ground transportation will be done by chauffered Town Car services? That way, you completely eliminate the employee (and thus the organization) from being liable. After all, isn't this really about limiting the liability of the organization?

When it comes to the NYC metro area, some of these recommendations simply wouldn't fly, no matter how good intentioned.

GPS - how about voice activated GPS systems? But how does one compensate for accents - I can't imagine how one would comprehend, "Yo, get me to Rocco's Deli, not the one in Canarsie, but the other one"
Fuel gauges - how about mandating that this information that gets displayed on the HUD? (I've heard that some GM vehicles in the 90s had this capability, but I've never seen one in person - of course, GM also implemented FLIR in some Cadillac models but that didn't seem to sell very well)
In-car audio systems - that's why what I drive has controls built into the steering wheel and an auxiliary display for the radio's functionality in the primary gauge cluster, rarely have to take my eyes off the road to switch from Beethoven to "Roll Over Beethoven"
Passengers - if you outlaw passengers, the only vehicles using the HOV lane on the Long Island Expressway are going to be the various hybrids and other vehicles that pay NY State for their "Clean Pass" stickers thereby negating the idea of a High Occupancy Vehicle.

Or, how about the idea of mandating auto-pilot for all company vehicles and simply set the GPS and allow the vehicle to get you to your destination without user interaction? Think it's not out there? Maybe not yet, but it will be soon - Mitsubishi is making some pretty big strides in this area.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
User Rank: Apprentice
3/31/2012 | 2:46:24 PM
re: No Hands-Free Phones In Cars: Why Stop There?
Rather than adding more laws it would be more beneficial to enforce the current laws. Every day I see some jackass with the phone in one hand, cigarette in the other, fiddling around with a CD case while going 80 in a 55 zone.
We need to stop these folks, take their cars and drivers licenses away (if they have a valid one) and make them walk or take the bus. That will make everyone else much safer than any new legislation.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/31/2012 | 12:20:45 AM
re: No Hands-Free Phones In Cars: Why Stop There?
I agree with this column 100 percent. Over-regulation is an enemy of technology. And truthfully, no law is really going to keep people from texting while driving when they think the coast is clear.
Brian Prince, InformationWeek/Dark Reading Comment Moderator
User Rank: Apprentice
3/30/2012 | 7:21:02 PM
re: No Hands-Free Phones In Cars: Why Stop There?
Actually in many states there are existing distracted driving laws which make things like putting on makeup, shaving, reading the newspaper and the like illegal (and we've all seen worse than this on the Interstate during morning rush hour). However, enforcement is a problem in an era when the highest mantra in the land is, "Don't tread on me no matter how stupid and self-centered I'm being."
User Rank: Apprentice
3/30/2012 | 6:00:59 PM
re: No Hands-Free Phones In Cars: Why Stop There?
While we're at it, we should outlaw...reading the newspaper (yes, I've seen it on the highway), shaving, eating, smoking and applying makeup. We should probably eliminate pets being in cars unless they are properly caged and/or buckled in. Yes, it is ridiculous to over-regulate in this way.
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