Commentary
12/14/2011
05:39 PM
Chris Spera
Chris Spera
Commentary

The NTSB Recommended In-Vehicle Cell Phone Use Ban - Technology Can Solve the Problem

Most responses to the NTSB's recommended Nation-wide ban on in vehicle cell phone use fails to do one important thing - address the root cause of the problem.



I've been a converged device (PDA and multimedia) and mobile devices advocate for nearly two decades. Consumer technology has brought unheard-of advances in society and culture, and stimulated the economy and created jobs during a time when they were sorely needed. However, some of this tech, like smartphones, has created a new wave of hazards that many are finding difficult to resist—especially when they really can't afford to be distracted. Like while they're driving or walking the busy streets of a humming city like Chicago.

Yesterday on MSN the National Transportation Safety Board recommended all states ban the use of mobile devices, with the exception of navigation devices in all motor vehicles. This includes even devices that employ hands-free communication via Bluetooth or a wired headset. Most of the responses, including the one at InformationWeek, recount the decision and comments made by the NTSB Chairman, Deborah Hersman, and invite readers to comment.

Unfortunately all of this really hits me the wrong way.



I'm a Quality Assurance director by day. My job is figuring out the real causes of problems and keeping them from recurring. I see the NTSB vote and ultimately its recommendation as deeply misinformed as to the root cause of the problem: the distracted driver.

I haven't seen the agency say one word about what alternatives the NTSB explored before making its recommendation. I assume an agency as influential and important as the NTSB would have looked into technological solutions first.

But I really can't make that assumption, and neither should you.  And no relevant publications that I can find cite any of their thought processes or considered alternatives.

The NTSB and the world must realize that smartphones, tablets and other mobile computing devices are not going away. Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the like are here to stay. Texting revenues for all of the cell carriers amount in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Use of these tools and technologies is only going to increase as time goes on.

The better thing do to instead of banning them in a motor vehicle, is to insure that they function appropriately in that motor vehicle, while the engine is on and the vehicle is moving.

We could require, for instance, that a driver's smartphone disables all all non-navigational data transmissions (so the phone can't text, surf, etc.) while the motor vehicle is moving. This could be easily done with a Bluetooth profile. The OS could simply disable all non-navigational data transmissions when the GPS receiver determines that the phone is traveling at a sustained speed faster than say, 15 miles per hour.

The Bluetooth profile would need to distinguish between a Bluetooth headset and a car kit. Most profiles don't do this today, so some updates would be needed. But this should be easy to implement given that most smartphones support OTA (Over the Air) updates and that GPS hardware is already in most of them (and perhaps some high end feature phones, as well).

Apart from addressing the real cause of the problem, it's a job saver and creator to boot (engineers, programmers, designers), and we wouldn't have to recall and disable the existing hands free features in most Ford and other vendor's automobiles.

The NTSB, cell carriers, and mobile device makers, need to work together and think out of the box to make this happen. Banning is extreme. Doctors wouldn't want to amputate a person's leg simply because a patient developed an infected toe.

The real issue here is distracted driving, not mobile device use by a driver. Would the NTSB also consider banning radios or music players, because they're a "distraction?" Applying makeup? Eating and drinking?

The NTSB should not single out this individual, potential cause of distracted driving if they are not going to also recommend a ban on anything and everything that causes driver distraction, including drinking a bottle of water, changing radio stations and even—make that especially—having children in the car. This recommendation was merely low-hanging fruit, politically volatile and an easy attention and headline grabber. Not a solution.

Based in Chicago, Chris is founding, manging editor at BYTE and a senior IT consultant for a prominant Chicago-based consulting firm. Over the past 15 years, Chris has helped start three successful internet properties, including CMPnet's File Mine back in 1997. He had a column in AOL/CompuServe's Computing Pro Forum for nearly 10 years; and has written for a suburban Chicago, SunTimes Media publication. You can follow Chris on Twitter at @chrisspera and email him at [email protected].

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