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Remarks before the Consumer Electronics Association CEO Winter Summit, Vail, CO
Mark V. Rosenker
Consumer Electronics Association CEO Winter Summit, Vail, CO

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.  I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to you today.  It is my privilege to serve as the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent Federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in other modes of transportation – railroad, highway, marine, and pipeline.  The NTSB does not mandate or regulate; our products are a determination of probable cause and recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents.

So, what does accident investigation have to do with the Consumer Electronics Association?  Why am I speaking to you today?  Simply put, consumer electronics have become part of the transportation landscape and therefore have an impact on safety.  Consumer electronics have made great inroads into the driving environment in particular; it is this environment I would like to discuss this morning. 

The driving task itself has not changed substantially since the day the first Model “T” rolled off the assembly line, but the environment in which drivers perform that task has changed dramatically.  There are more vehicles on the road, giving the driver more to watch out for.  More vehicles mean more roads, which in turn means more intersections.  More intersections mean more traffic control devices, which also increase the driver’s workload.  And then there’s the environment inside the vehicle.  Today’s drivers receive more information about the status of their vehicles than ever before – displays tell us if the passenger side airbag is armed, if wheel slip has been detected, if another vehicle is in our blind spot when we want to change lanes, and so on.  Some cars have moving map displays and Global Positioning Systems to tell us where we are and how to get where we want to go.  Others include in-vehicle video systems, which many parents find invaluable.  The driver and other passengers also “come equipped” with electronics – cell phones, pagers, PDAs… the list is endless.

When you think about it, the driving environment certainly seems full of distractions.  Sadly, both research and real-world accident data bear this out.  A recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) found that 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near crashes involved driver inattention within three seconds of the onset of the event.  The Safety Board has found driver distraction to be a factor in several accidents, including a 2002 accident near Largo, Maryland.  In the Largo crash, a young woman was driving a new SUV – the first car she had owned – on the Capital Beltway at about 70 miles per hour.  She was following her boyfriend and had lost sight of him, so she was on her cell phone with him, trying to figure out where they were in relation to each other.  It was a windy night, with the wind blowing across the roadway.  The young lady, while holding her cell phone, lost control of her SUV in the crosswind, crossed the median, and struck another vehicle.  Five people were killed, including the young woman, and one person was injured.

So we should eliminate the distractions, right?  It’s impractical to remove some of the distractions, such as children or other passengers.  So, we’ll remove the electronic distractions…. but wait a minute - many of these electronic distractions are beneficial.  Some, such as the wheel slip indicator, provide a direct safety benefit.  Others, such as a navigational unit with a moving-map display and auditory directions, are a clear improvement over the alternatives, such as a paper map or handwritten directions.  Some provide a secondary safety benefit, such as the DVD player, which can keep a child entertained and calm.  Cellular telephones, often in the news lately, are another example; they allow motorists to call for help for themselves and others.  Clearly, consumer electronics are going to remain in the vehicle.

How, then, do we address the issue of driver distraction?  Some steps can be taken through legislation; as an example, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense have enacted bans while talking on hand-held wireless phones, except in specific situations.  To protect a population at greater risk, the Safety Board has recommended that teen drivers not carry other teens for the first six months of licensure and that they not be permitted to use wireless communication devices while driving.  While I’m on the subject of cell phones, let me stress that the Safety Board does not want to restrict everyone’s use of cell phones or other electronic devices; instead we are looking to see that these products are used in the safest manner possible and we want to protect those drivers at greatest risk.

While these policies and recommendations are good first steps, it is my personal opinion that you, the members of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), are uniquely positioned to have a greater impact than any piece of legislation.

Let me take a moment and applaud one of the CEA’s efforts – the “Watch the Road: Drive Smart with Consumer Electronics” education campaign launched in 2005.  This website, offering tips and recommendations for the safe and responsible use of in-vehicle electronics, is a terrific beginning.  Having a strong position statement, outlining an approach including research, public educations, and enforcement is also an excellent first step.

I urge the members of the CEA to continue and expand upon these efforts.  Those members involved in the development or manufacture of consumer electronics for the vehicle should consider the environment in which your product will be used.  If it has a display, where should it be located in the vehicle?  When should your product be active?  How will it affect – and be affected by – other systems in the vehicle?  Consider how much information is too much; what information has priority; what should happen in an emergency – and what constitutes an emergency – and how you can account for differences in driver ability.

Those members involved in the sale and installation of consumer electronics have a role to play as well.  As perhaps the only contact a consumer will have, I encourage you to be aware of the issue of driver distraction, and to make your customer aware of the issue as well.  Know the laws governing the product, and educate your customer.  Ensure you are in compliance with industry and association policies as they are developed and evolve.  And, perhaps most importantly, communicate the concerns, observations, and wishes of your customers back to those responsible for the development of the product.  Your customers – drivers – will tell you what problems they are having, if you listen.

In closing, let me give one last example.  When VCRs were all the rage, comedians would frequently joke about the obvious indicator of an improperly programmed VCR – the flashing 12:00.  Many references were made to how the “flashing 12” would distract and annoy people… and, in some cases, provoke rage.  This seems to me to be a double tragedy.  Not only is the VCR not providing the benefit it was supposed to – after all, you can’t record the show you don’t want to miss if the clock’s not working – but it is, in fact, causing a distraction and adding to the stress of the consumer.  The members of the CEA are in the unique position of being able to enhance the driving experience, making it more enjoyable and safer; at the same time, caution must be taken to not introduce a distraction from the driving task.  I believe by working together with academia and government, the members of the CEA can avoid the “flashing 12:00”.

Again, thank you for inviting me to speak today.