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Remarks before the International Consumer Electronics Show, Las Vegas, NV
Mark V. Rosenker
International Consumer Electronics Show, Las Vegas, NV

Preventing Distracted Driving with Consumer Electronics Technology

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to you today.

In a little over one hundred years, the automobile has gone from being a curiosity to one of the most important modes of transportation in the world. It has evolved from a wooden wagon to a sophisticated vehicle with as much technology as the early manned space exploration vehicles. Despite this, the task faced by millions of drivers around the world today is substantially the same as the one that faced the driver of the first automobile to roll off the assembly line. So why do crashes still happen? Shouldn’t we have figured them all out by now? The answer to that question is no, and the reason is this: although the task is basically the same, the environment in which drivers are expected to successfully complete the task has changed drastically. Let me give you an example:

You’ve just run out of a meeting to take your young child to a doctor’s appointment. It’s lunchtime, so you run through the drive-thru to get lunch. As you get back on the road, your cell phone rings. It’s your boss, who needs your input for the meeting that is still going on. Your son starts crying and trying to unbuckle his safety seat because he’s dropped his French fries on the floor and can’t reach them. A light on the dashboard, a red one you’ve never seen before, comes on. Your son’s DVD movie has stopped and needs to be restarted. You’re trying to find a traffic report on the radio, hoping to find a faster route, since you’re late for the doctor… and did I mention you’re supposed to be focusing on driving safely the whole time?

Clearly, the driving environment has gotten more complex, making it more challenging to successfully accomplish the driving task. And we now see even of MORE complexity – add an electronic moving-map display, a talking navigation system, internet access so you can look up the answer to your boss’ question, and an in-vehicle warning system alerting you that you’re drifting out of your lane.

There’s growing evidence that distracted driving is a problem. 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 who had just purchased a new SUV that day, the first car she had owned, was following her boyfriend on the Capital Beltway at about 70 miles per hour. She 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 gusting across the highway. The driver, while holding her cell phone, tried to correct for the crosswind, lost control of the SUV, crossed the median, and struck another vehicle. Five people were killed, including the young woman, and one person was injured.

A 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.

So, how do we reduce the distractions? Well, we could eliminate them. Take all distractions out of the car… but that really isn’t practical, is it? Some potential distractions, like the child in the scenario I posed earlier, simply can’t be removed. Others, like the dashboard warning light or the lane departure warning, offer a direct safety benefit to the driver. For today’s consumer, SAFETY SELLS – they want to know about ABS, all-wheel drive, electronic stability control, traction control, GPS, and even collision warning systems – all electronic devices, and all potential distractions. Some “Consumer electronic distractions” provide secondary safety benefits; the DVD player, for instance, can keep a child entertained and calm, removing a distraction. Cellular telephones, often mentioned lately, are another example; they allow motorists to call for help for themselves and others.

I think we would all agree that in-vehicle distractions – including a number of consumer electronics – are here to stay.

Well, since they can’t be completely removed from the vehicle, what can we do? We can start by reducing the distractions for some of our most vulnerable drivers. Crash rates for younger teenage drivers learning how to drive are higher than for any other age group. Sixteen-year-olds have crash rates three times that of seventeen-year-olds, five times that of eighteen-year-olds, and twice that of eighty-five-year-olds. Studies have also shown that the number of passengers is related to risk, with one study finding the death rate for sixteen-year-old drivers with three or more passengers to be three times that of sixteen-year-old drivers with no passengers. Consequently, the Board has recommended that teen drivers not carry other teens for the first 6 months of licensure and that they not be permitted to use wireless communication devices while driving. These recommendations reflect that novice drivers are in the process of learning a very complex task and they lack the ability to judge the risks associated with that task. As accidents and studies show, adding friends or a communication device learning phase are a recipe for disaster.

Although these recommendations are a good first step, we CAN and MUST do more. You, the members of the Consumer Electronics Association have a rare and dramatic opportunity to directly improve safety by addressing distraction – both individually and in cooperation with government agencies such as the Safety Board.

So, you’re thinking, “Sounds great. How?” I believe there are steps that can be taken to improve safety in both the short- and long-term. In the short term, there are technologies available that enhance the safety of others in the driving environment. Since I mentioned cell phones in both my distraction example and in connection with the Largo accident, I’ll use them as an illustration here:

One way to improve the safety of cell phones in the car is through the use of hands-free systems. Not only does the consumer recognize the safety and convenience offered by the technology, but Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia and now the DOD have enacted bans on driving while talking on hand-held wireless phones, except in specific situations. It is my personal opinion that the time is right for the auto industry and cell phone industry to work together to make this simple hands-free technology available in all new products. Similar steps can be taken with respect to other consumer electronic devices. And 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 manor possible and in particular protect our most vulnerable drivers –the novice drivers –

In the long-term, the answer to distraction lies in addressing human factors in all phases of product design, development, and deployment. Let me give you some examples: during the design of a product, consider things such as how information should be presented to the driver – should it be auditory, tactile, or visual? When should it be presented? How will it affect, and be affected by, other systems in the vehicle? I urge you to work closely with academia and those researchers attempting to answer basic questions about the driving task and human information processing.

During the development of a product, consider things like where a display should be located in the vehicle; how loud the warning beeps should be; how big arrows and icons should be; and if the meaning of the icons are clear and unambiguous. Also consider things like how much information is too much; what information has priority and should take precedence; what information is related to an emergency – and who determines what constitutes an emergency; and how should we account for differences in driver ability.

Let’s not forget the driver in all this. The driver must take some responsibility, managing information and remembering that the purpose of driving is to get to the destination safely. In my initial example, the driver could eliminate the French Fries, turn off his cell phone, and skip the traffic report – actions which have reduced distractions and increased safety.

Real people, living ordinary lives, carrying out their daily tasks, deserve to be as safe as we can make them in their automobiles. Working together, I am confident all of us – academia, industry, and government – can create systems that give the consumer - the driver - increased functionality, increased convenience, AND increased safety.

Again, thank you for inviting me to speak today.