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 [email protected] or at @_jfeldman.