Provisional Phones/Provisional Drivers

The Provisional Phone And the Provisional Driver…

Are we needing to reinvent the phone for young people?

It used to be a teenage rite of passage in the U.S.:  At ‘Sweet Sixteen’ you were considered mature and could qualify to take a driving exam. Today, that rite comes smaller and younger. Children, well under the age of 16, have been indoctrinated into the whirl of smartphones, the friends and family of telecom.

According to a heavily reported news story in 2016, the average age (in the U.S.)  for having a smartphone today is 10 years.   That numerical average means that many of the users are actually younger!  Another statistic from the American Academy of Pediatrics and Common Sense Media, cites that 75 percent of low-income children have their own mobile device by the age of four.

Still, despite 100 years that separate their invention, smartphones and automobiles are joined at the hip. They bring similar rewards for young people.  With either technology, teens hang out with friends and meet new people, distance themselves from parental controls, and explore the world at large. However, there are also tragic parallels between the phone and driving a car. Teen drivers, ages 16 to 19 are nearly three time more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash and in 2015 there were more than 2,300 deaths. Meanwhile smartphones and social media use appear to correlate with an increase in mental illness, depression, and suicides.  A recent, large panel study with Gallup data compared offline and online social interactions. The researchers observed a statistically significant relationship between a self-reported decline in mental health and a heavier reliance on Facebook’s social interchange.

While no one is proposing that teens need a DMV (a motor vehicle office) to certify them as smartphone users, “provisional phones” could become a new heuristic. Since the beginning of automobiles there have been age restrictions. From the start drivers were required to be tested, and by 1909 one state, Pennsylvania, established an age restriction of age 18. Connecticut became the first state to lower that to age 16.

Today, smartphones seem to know no age restrictions, probably because children do not literally crash and burn. The impact is subtle. Yet recently, Silicon Valley executives, those who design hardware and software, have rallied for stricter technology use and even regulation.

Meanwhile, there is no scientific knowledge, just speculation, of the appropriate age at which children should have phones. There is an undercurrent (no pun intended) of fear about the health impacts of electromagnetic waves on young, developing brains. Meanwhile, ‘lucky thirteen’ seems to be popping-up as the new ‘sweet-sixteen’.  A Colorado doctor had proposed a ballot initiative to ban the sale of smartphones to kids under thirteen.  A large movement now afoot, in 48 states, is called wait until 8th (when children are approximately 14 years old).

The “right age” is clearly a dilemma for parents. Modern parents feel more secure if their children can be in contact, and they justify mobile phones because there are no longer land-lines. They also recognize that a child without a phone misses out socializing with friends and learning modern tools. Everyone knows that the ability and knowledge to handle electronic tools begins before age 13.

(end of part one)

Smartphones & Rental Car: Forget Me Not

Are you leaving a shadow at the car rental?

“Please remove your personal possession from the rental car… as well as your personal data… or….forget me not!”

We are all familiar with the first part of that announcement when we drop-off a rental car, particularly if we return it to an airport location. Unless you have rented a very recent model, you may not know that your digital data could stay with the car long after you have shut the trunk, grabbed your bags, and caught your flight.

With a smaller rental car agency, you may have encountered the Bluetooth display that lists past drivers as it searches for a pairing. Bigger rental agencies may be more savvy about clearing this screen. In 2015, it came to light that pairing a smartphone to a car’s Bluetooth system could leave a digital trace.   This trace might include your phone number, call list, and even contacts, unless you took efforts to delete it.

In 2016, an English cybersecurity expert, David Ward, indicated that additional steps were needed.  In a talk at the Institute of Engineering and Technology he said, “in a hire car I paired a mobile device (…) needless to say, when it went back to the rental station, there weren’t any paired devices listed in the memory (…) but all that means is they were deleted from the list; someone that could physically get hold of that unit could probably still extract the data.”  (Note: Mr. Ward,  of MIRA,  was not specific about ‘where’ this information is stored but a later zdnet item indicates it is within the car’s infortainment system.)

More recently, both Google and Apple have announced Bluetooth type systems that are supposed to reduce the risks.  Apple CarPlay and AndroidAuto are supposed to display information from the smartphone without storing it. Cars equipped with these systems  may eliminate the current risks to your data (note: or create new ones).

Meanwhile, most rental cars do not have have these systems, and it will be a while before the technology diffuses through the fleet. As an interim measure, we can remember before we set up Bluetooth, to not sync the contacts.  It has also been suggested that we allow extra time when we return a rental car so that we remember to clear it from the Bluetooth pairing!!  The full recommendation is to do a complete factory reset of the Bluetooth (you might need to ask the rental agency to assist).  Apparently, the car’s navigation system will also need to be reset and cleared of its cookie-crumb trail.

Perhaps CarPlay and Android Auto will reduce the leakage of data, and drivers will be more assured that their information will remain private. That will also require that users trust these new systems, and possibly consider paying a monthly fee too.  One solution begets another problem, yet an even more bigger one.

The pairing of the smartphone and mobility brings ‘human sized’ challenges. The simplicity and ease of using Apple Play or Android Auto will encourage drivers and their passengers to interact with their smartphones more frequently. The developers overlook human issues: the cognitive burden of doing this is two-way, quite different from the interaction with simpler things, like a manually operated , turn knob, car radio. As our technology grows and our privacy does a reset, so does out ability to distract the driver even further.

Smartphone TuneUp

A Smartphone TuneUp

It may be time to tune-up your phone, just like your car!

This month we add Smartphones to the  GrayHomesGreen Cars  title, as  they will increasingly propel mobility in the coming year. In 2017 more than 77% of Americans owned a smartphone , and 95% had a cell phone of some kind. That exceeds the number of drivers, which is 88% of people over  age 15.

There is a long history with our cars- nearly 125 years since they were invented. We have a short history with our smartphones- just ten years since the smartphone debuted.

We can enter the New Year with a fresh start if we depend on our cars less and our phones more. But, to do so we need to use our phones  mindfully and masterfully. As we transition to the age of smartphones, we take some practical lessons from our motoring experience.


(1) Get a TuneUp

Auto manufacturers recommend that we tune up our car at regular intervals-every 7,500 miles or so. That mechanical check-in keeps cars running well and avoids breakdowns further down the road.

The same principle applies to our smartphones. We periodically need to clean them up, digitally speaking. It is important to deal with the sheer volume of material- paring down saved downloads, moving pictures to a more permanent source, reduce the number of voice mails, and so forth. An average smartphone user accesses just 30 apps a month, but has downloaded one-third to one-half more. 

The following YouTube video,  was apparently inspired by the Japanese author, Marie Kondo, and  it provides some steps for a quick tune-up.


(2) Do the Detailing

You see them lined up on a Saturday morning-  the car owners that go the carwash every weekend, and keep their vehicle spanking clean. Nearly all of us wish we could take the time to do that, and restore that new-car smell.

It turns out that smartphones need to be tidied up too- and it is easier than going to the carwash. You can develop a daily habit to remove finger prints, and wipe down the screen, the case, and the chargers. It only takes a second of time and a lint-free cloth.

While you probably will not put be able to put the phone back in the original box it came in, and recreate the excitement you felt when you first opened it, you will still feel better. And, you may be able to go further….pay attention to the bag or pocket you lug your phone in. Is that space clean, easy to reach, and not too mixed up with other things you have to carry?


(3) Count the Miles

If you lease a car, you know that it is important to track the number of miles, so that you do not exceed the terms of your contract. Likewise, if you expense your miles or drive for a living, you also count them.

The same principle, tracking where we have been and how much time we have spent, has an essential role for smartphones. On a daily basis, we may read and send hundreds of messages and texts, visit innumerable multiple web sites, and open our favorite apps multiple times. It’s a good idea to slow down and observe ourselves using our phones.


If you are feeling stressed this holiday season it may be because you are stacking too many new things onto your digital presence. Take a moment to step back, count the miles, or in this case, slow down and examine the distance you cover.

(4) Share!

Note: If you find this blog interesting or useful, please instagram to #declutterphone or twitter to #declutterphone. Please share…how you might simplify and organize your smartphone?


Black Friday of Transportation: Fowl & Fun

Fowl Day.

It’s the Black Friday of Transportation….. Nearly 51 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home during the five-day period from Wednesday through Sunday, with 89 percent driving.  Even those who fly (like wild turkeys), just under 8 percent, will begin and end their trip with ground transportation.

While urban drivers will encounter an endless sea of tail lights, those driving in rural areas have different concerns. Weather is a factor,  as well as the errant deer that knows no crossing bounds.  But there is also a hazard from the turkey that is not on your plate. Vehicle-turkey accidents are as common as car-deer collisions according to a rep from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.*

There is graphic detail in this WSBT-TV news video, courtesy of Automotive Fleet (spoiler alert:  turkeys are harmed).

Next, our blog takes a U-turn and offers up  a Thanksgiving chortle. It’s a spoof on our regular topics:  rideshare, older people learning technology, future homes, and autonomous vehicles. So, let’s go foul and fun!

It’s A Turkey, Part One:

There are 200 organic turkeys to be delivered from the farm to a nearby processing plant. They are piled into small crates for the short trip, just three or four miles away. The truck has side curtains, so that the organic birds get open, circulated air. The turkeys are surprised by this change of routine; they drop feathers and cackle.

Little do they know that they have boarded  a new “autonomous tractor trailer” (called an ATT) with no human operator. The ATT sets off on the quiet farm road, unlikely to encounter traffic.

But  the road is so quiet and secluded that when night-time falls, it becomes the site for nefarious deeds. Someone has dumped a thread-bare couch on the road and it sits there, perched on its side.  As the ATT slows down to veer around it, a sudden wind gust picks up the couch, and it hurtles into the side of the truck.

The next moment is filled with feathers. The cages become airborne and their doors spring loose. The turkeys, thankful to be released, run through the grasslands, and a few fly off. They pass over the factory they were supposed to reach.

Turkey, Part Two:

Meanwhile, families are making their preparations for the big day. In elementary school, kids are learning about the boat that brought the Pilgrims to this country, the Mayflower. They also recite the names of Columbus’ boats: the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.

One of the more precocious children asks about the first autonomous vehicles. What were they named? In a future celebration, school kids will give thanks and draw pictures of Darpa 1, Darpa 2, and Darpa 3.

Turkey, Part Three:

Grandma and Grandpa have learned the buzz and decided to give up their car. They now depend on rideshare vehicles, and there is still a driver at the steering wheel; they are not fully autonomous yet. Unfortunately, the grandparents are not always so sharp. They have not quite mastered how to use the software on their smartphone phones. It is particularly hard for them to place the pin, and they forget to check where it has automatically centered.  

On Thanksgiving Day, they prepare for their trip with apple pies in hand. But they mistakenly program someone else’s address. The rideshare driver takes them to a different town and a different home for Thanksgiving. Fortunately, they are magnanimously welcomed, and the pies are shared.

Turkey, Rebound:

It is the day after Thanksgiving, a day of frenzied shopping called Black Friday. The malls are, of course, empty because the hordes now shop online, and backroom servers work ceaselessly to keep up with the surge.  Meanwhile,  in midair, drones are delivering the packages. Unexpectedly, they are crashing into each other as they collide with errant flying turkeys.

Happy Thanksgiving!  And Safe Travels.

*disclaimer: The turkey vs. deer statistic may be specific to rural  Indiana, and these accidents normally occur during mating season, in early spring.


Robots, Traffic Lights & Autonomous Cars

Johannesburg, photo by W. Riedel, 2011.

Robots, traffic lights, and autonomous cars have a lot in common. 

Ask a South African about Robots, and they will point to the humble traffic signal.  Robot Policemen was the name they gave to  the first traffic signals.  Over time, the name got truncated.  

Modern traffic signals are actually catching up to the name. Traffic signals will be an important milestone, past and future, for the autonomous vehicle.  By coincidence, 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the interconnected traffic signal and the 103rd year of the electric one.

For just a moment, imagine that you were a driver in 1917. Engineers needed to earn your trust that these new signals would function correctly. If the engineers were wrong, or if the electricity that powered them failed, a collision would surely result.

The handiwork of the engineers could not stand alone. It also required laws and enforcement so that drivers and pedestrians  could share a common framework. The public had to agree to accept the change. Meanwhile, the technology was further codified by insurance regulations. There needed to be clear enforceable rules so that complete strangers, invisible inside cars to each other, could agree when to stop and go.

In 2027, ten years from now, there will be even more pronounced similarities between a robot and the traffic signal. By then, the passengers, formerly called drivers, will have to put their faith in electronic controls. An autonomous vehicle will not proceed until the signal is cleared, just as the driver in today’s conventional car knows  not to step on the gas pedal until the light turns green.

Traffic signals are evolving into a robotic mode, perhaps ahead of cars. Some signals in Pittsburgh, Pa. operate on an adaptive traffic signal system that uses artificial intelligence to change the signal on the fly. Uniquely, each signal is decentralized, and makes its own timing decisions, diverging from the signal standard of the past century. The benefits are less idling and fewer tailpipe emissions.

Similar advanced signaling may also be coming soon to a car near you. Audi and BMW have announced features that count down the time remaining until a traffic light turns green.  In an Audi vehicle, the number reads out on the instrument cluster and the heads-up display. The sensor can also determine whether the driver, at his current speed, will need to stop at a signaled intersection. Las Vegas was the first US city to agree to pilot the technology, and it requires users to have both a new Audi and an Internet like subscription in the vehicle.

Learning to program connected traffic signals used to be one the most mathematically complex aspects of civil engineering. Enabling vehicles, not drivers, to process the traffic signal is a major step on the road to autonomous vehicles. Newer signals are programmed through AI, as robots are.

One hundred years ago, society worried what would happen “if” the traffic light failed and the electricity went down. One hundred years later, drivers  will have an advanced system they must, anew, come to trust.


Amusing Ourselves to Death: Driver Distraction

“Amusing Ourselves to Death” is the visionary title of a book by former NYU Professor and media guru, Neil Postman. Postman was writing about film and TV, not about traffic fatalities.  He could not have imagined that  “Amusing Ourselves to Death” would be a literal title that described our roadways. It is just beginning.

The road to autonomous cars will have more casualties, as we clamor for entertainment, and demand to travel with smartphones and voice assistants.  BMW and Mini are about to introduce the Alexa to automobiles.  Cadillac and Audi will sell vehicles with Stage 2 or 3 hands-free driving.  In the not so distant future, companies might pay to send in-vehicle ads and promotions to drivers, based on knowledge of the destination. Drivers may welcome this if the ads offset their travel cost, similar to the business model used by over-the-air TV. There is synergy between cars, phones, and messages.

The synergy is easy to understand.  Within the closed confines of a car, conversation fills the space. It can seem as natural to talk with someone over the phone, as it feels to chat with the passenger sitting beside us, or in the back seat. Drivers don’t make a distinction between remote conversations and the ones they have with passengers, even though the cognitive processing skills differ. More obviously, they know that passengers react to the road…they pause, they modulate their tone of voice, and sometimes they even cry out, should they observe slowing traffic or dangerous road conditions. Passengers provide both verbal and non-verbal traffic cues, and that makes driving with a passenger safer than speaking with someone remotely, at the other end of the smartphone.

Drivers have a hard time grasping that driving and dialing are conflicting tasks. Hands free /bluetooth communications makes drivers feel safe, since they keep their hands on the wheel. They do not recognize that hands-free is not cognitive free: there is a split second shifting of focus between the conversation and the road. Most of the time, if drivers are experienced with both the road and their phones, simple, basic verbal exchanges (yes/no/when) do not seem to cause accidents. However, this assumption will be tested further as Amazon introduces its Alexa voice assistant into 2018 BMW cars and minis.  

It is noteworthy that while the diffusion of Bluetooth devices has increased and new cars have gained many more factory-installed safety features, there has still been an uptick in traffic fatalities. Between 2014 and 2016 there was a 14% increase in traffic deaths. The cause is not clear, but a common attribution is that one in four fatalities is linked to the phone.

We are now moving from an era with hands-on-the-wheel to one where messaging will be more omnipresent. Recall that the first traffic death in an autonomous vehicle occurred when a Tesla driver traveled at high speed, watching a movie. The driver failed to respond, although it was estimated, ex post, that he had 10 seconds to take back the wheel before colliding with a truck that crossed his path.

A new generation of cars, the 2018 Cadillac CT6 sedan, allow the driver to be in semi-autonomous mode, but with eyes on the road. An eye-tracking camera is mounted to the dashboard. A different system from Audi goes one step further and allows the driver to take their eyes off the road if the vehicle is on a divided road with traffic speeds under 40 mph.  Audi touts (per the WSJ)  the advantages:  “drivers can turn their attention to  “things like “ answer their email, write text messages.. or plan for their vacation.”

Spoiler: The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board)  is reviewing the self-driving Audi and has not decided if the car is road-ready.

Whether the Cadillac or the Audi models succeed, drivers continue to sit forward  and face the windshield. To escape boredom, these drivers will surely spend more time on their smartphones. Spending more smartphone time will also justify their productivity; they can take the office with them as they travel.

In the short run, smartphones will rule. We should not expect strong legislation and public education, like the kind that greatly reduced traffic fatalities from drinking and driving. Policy makers, perhaps early adopters themselves, will be reluctant to regulate hands-free.

The NTSB may still weigh in, but owners of semi-autonomous cars will be setting a new trend. They will introduce  brand new entertainment systems to vehicles, and speed up the frequency and rate of smartphone use. If drivers are more connected and less aware, their remote vehicles will need to be more responsive. Of course, current vehicles are still in beta testing so some drivers will unwittingly amuse themselves to death. Meanwhile, other connected devices like the Alexa, will make driving less tedious but they still lack the eyes and ears of a fellow passenger.

It Takes An Island: Hawaii & Smartphone Distraction

Pedestrian Safety Month
HDOT- 2017

It takes an island to do something about transport and smartphone distraction.

Visitors to Hawaii often take home a colorful shirt or bikini, a lei, or macadamia nuts. Now, however, they can come home with some lessons on smartphones, traffic safety, and multi-modal planning. The island of Oahu is moving forward with  initiatives that will encourage alternative modes of transportation. The first program gives some weight to an issue that National Safety Council advertises every April, but wishes that the public pay attention to all year: distracted driving. With a tropical twist, Honolulu will become the first city to ban walking with a cell phone. The motto for the program is “Don’t Walk and Cross.”  

The initiative prohibits pedestrians from using cell phones and other electronic devices when they are crossing a street. The initial fines are relatively minor, between $15 and $35, with a potential cap of $99. The Councilman who sponsored the bill observed that Hawaii is ranked 13th in pedestrian deaths. Additionally, the Honolulu police supported the legislation.

In public testimony, a high school teacher noted that “students are putting themselves at a high risk for potential injuries because they are being distracted by their devices,” and a young student from Waipahu High School  endorsed the bill because, “using a cellphone while crossing the street is just as dangerous as using a cellphone while driving… the (bill) builds awareness and educates others…” Opponents of the bill wanted to spend public funds on  infrastructure improvements instead and called the bill a government overreach. In their view, motorists should be regulated, not pedestrians.

The second program on Oahu is a bike share. Tourists and residents can now check out 1000 Biki bikes distributed over 100 locations. The cost is just $3.50 per hour or $20.00 for 5 hours. Advocates claim these bikes will cut down on congestion. Critics, on the other hand, argue that the rental bikes could worsen traffic as inexperienced riders share the road with buses, tourist trolleys, cars, mopeds, other bikers, and of course, pedestrians.  

It is unknown whether the smartphone legislation grew in tandem with the biking initiative. The legislation that prohibits smartphone use has a sister clause for vehicles: motorists, including bikers, are prohibited from using handheld phones during their trip (except for GPS), as well as from wearing headphones or other electronics. So, pedestrians  and bikers now have an important role in shifting public opinion on texting and driving. If they are serious about pedestrian safety, Hawaii could also take an island-wide approach to outlaw right on red turns, reduce vehicle speed limits, and increase the length of ped-crossing intervals.

Perhaps the pedestrian cell phone use ban in Honolulu will start a movement. If locals and tourists feel safer and it proves to reduce accidents, the concept will spread. The new legislation may remind smartphone users at large that they need to pay attention to their immediate environment, whether they are on foot or behind the wheel. It is important to note that distracted driving in Hawaii is a considerable offense. Unlike other states, Hawaii takes a tough stance: it bans texting and hand held phones. However, like the mainland, it has yet to prohibit the use of hands-free smartphones in cars. There seems to be a legislative resistance everywhere to the statistical evidence that hands free-devices are dangerous in vehicles.

It will be interesting to see how Honolulu chooses to roll out the smartphone ban that begins on October 25th. Will they publicize the new legislation widely, and make people aware of it through a soft-sell approach, perhaps a parody on “enjoy Oahu, hand in hand, not hand on phone”.  The statewide poster (see image) from Pedestrian Safety Month and the Girl Scouts gives some indication that a soft-sell approach can be successful. Alternatively, Hawaii could promote the new law with a campaign that focuses on the health-risks, akin to anti-smoking messages from the American Cancer Society. Initiating the message at school crossings may be the first priority.

As the program gains momentum, pedestrians need to believe that Honolulu is strict on safety for all transportation modes, not just singling out lowly walkers. Tourists will surely be surprised if they end up with an official warning, or perhaps a small fine, as they stroll Honolulu. These smartphone wielding tourists might learn a new lesson and carry it with them back to the mainland along with their other souvenirs.

Distracted Driving Needs a Slogan- MADD II

We don’t get in cars with drunk drivers, but why do we persist in driving with someone talking on a cell phone?

April was ‘Distracted Driving Month’ and most drivers probably encountered at least one public service ad or safety warning. While the advertising campaign is thirty days long, the problem persists throughout the year. Over a twelve month period, there will be nearly 3,500  traffic deaths, and 400,000 traffic injuries associated with distracted driving per the National Highway Traffic  Safety Administration.

The real accident rate, the underlying numbers, are much larger. It is difficult for police officers at a traffic scene to code for distraction. Unlike wearing a seatbelt or testing for alcohol use, cell phone distraction is not obvious. There is no simple way to know whether a cell phone was involved in a crash and it is difficult to obtain telco calling records. Drivers often forget, or are unwilling to talk about their phone use, and witnesses are not a good source of information.

Whatever the coding, traffic deaths are the number one public health issue and take a larger toll than we realize. One sobering statistic comes from Israel, which is positioning itself as a leader in autonomous cars: since 1948, 35,000 people have died on Israel’s roads compared with 25,000 in war and terror attacks.

While cars are getting safer,  accidents due to distracted driving are on the increase. Yet the outcry about distracted driving seems to be fading (except in April). Most people would think twice about getting in a car with someone who has been drinking, yet someone using a cell phone is more at risk. A widely quoted study in Human Factors cited that a driver talking on a cell phone is more impaired that someone with a blood alcohol level exceeding 0.08.

At least three methods have been used to control distracted driving, none of them fully successful. The first method, which might be called a countermeasure, works directly on the source, the phone. The app is able to control and halt incoming calls and text messages. The apps also turn off notifications and alerts that could distract a driver or tempt to use their phone. Most of these  apps are free, but have found few followers. Even parents of teenagers, who could track their teenager’s cell phone use in real time, seem resistant to the counter-measure.  When Auto-Shut Down apps were recommended by the former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in 2010, critics countered that the police use text when they drive, and the apps represented an over-reach of federal government.

A second approach has been public awareness campaigns, like the one in April from the National Safety Council. There is an advantage here as people can be reached where the distraction is occurring; namely in their cars. Billboards and radio seem to be an underutilized medium. Distracted driving has not received resources that have gone into publicizing similar, year-long,  in-vehicle campaigns like “Buckle Up for Safety” and “Don’t Drive and Drive”. The NHTSA has responded with the U word: “U Drive, U Text, U Pay.”

A third approach has been legislation. The key problem is that cell phone bans are hard to enforce and traffic officers seldom pull over offenders. No state outlaws all cell phone use for drivers, despite a recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board to ban texting while driving, and the placing of hands-free calls. 38 states ban all cell phone use by new drivers, and 14 states prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. That legislation is perhaps drafted by public servants who observe their own behavior in cars, and anticipate that if it safe for them, it is safe for others.

One reason legislation lags is because people intuitively like to use their phones in cars, and they want to believe that hands free technology is safe. The counter argument, from research in cognitive science, is that cell phone conversations are detrimental to driving. Cell phone conversations keep drivers from paying full attention to the road and it also reduces their visual field. After following 100 vehicles over one year with specially equipment, researchers at the Virginia Tech Transport Institute  found that nearly eighty percent of crashes and sixty-five percent of near-crashes involved driver inattention up to three seconds before the event. Their in-car cameras recorded the source of the distraction, and, of course, it was frequently the cell phone.

There is currently a push to install hands-free phones that would eliminate the need to reach for a phone, or text while holding the steering wheel. While these intuitively seem to help, they do not reduce the cognitive burden for drivers. Vehicle dashboards with speech-recognition and  touch-screen systems distract drivers, in new and unknown ways.  It could be argued that over time, these systems will become more intuitive and drivers will get more fluent using them. In a previous blog, we compared this to the early days of car radio. An equilibrium may be reached but until then, there will be several generations of dashboard technology. Until that point, dashboard tech may cause teeth gnashing and accidents, as a humorous story in the Wall St. Journal recently noted.

Going forward, perhaps “Distracted Driving Month” will evolve into something with more staying power. “Mothers Against Drunk Driving”  might someday expand their mission to reflect the current problem, and they would not even have  to change their acronym (MADD). Meanwhile, the road to driverless cars will be filled with more distraction as drivers try to manage the intermediate dashboards.  When a fatal accident occurred in a self-driving Tesla vehicle last year, the driver was said to be in the ultimate state of distraction- watching a movie.


April: Springing Up Distracted Drivers

April is National Distracted Driver Month, but drivers’  may be too distracted to have noticed that. The National Safety Council began this public service campaign around 2011, but the data on driving distraction has significantly changed over the past six years.  We don’t know if we have been taken as April’s Fools.

We begin with a definition: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that distracted driving is any activity that diverts attention from driving… “it includes talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking…talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the radio…”


In 2009, the annual data released by NHTSA showed sixteen percent (16%) of fatal crashes involved distracted driving. They added that this number was probably under reported. In a more recent 2014 report, the NHTSA observed that distracted driving accounted was the cause for just ten percent (10%) of fatal crashes. It is hard to imagine that drivers have become less distracted and the accident rate is droping. The underlying reason is that the NHTSA changed the baseline for reporting data around 2011.

The rate of most distractions… eating and drinking in the car, and fiddling with the radio has probably stayed constant since 2011. The Smartphone, as distraction, did not.


 Pew Research reports that in the Spring of 2011, only thirty-five percent (35%) of Americans had a smartphone. By 2016, the ownership rate was sixty-four (64%).

It is hard to reconcile that as smartphone use has increased  the overall accident rate from distracted driving has declined. 

Yet  another government report, called NOPUS, provides confusing  data too. It observes for 2015 that the percentage of  drivers text-messaging or visibly manipulating handheld devices and phones in cars was between 2.2 and 3.8 percent. A different source, a  survey done for AT&T reports that seventy percent (70%) of drivers admitted to using their smartphone in the car.


There have been technological fixes between 2011 and 2017 that could have reduced the dangers, but there is not a consensus that they help. Consider the three known sources of driver distraction: visual distraction (taking your eyes off the road to fumble for your phone), manual distraction (fumbling for the phone and then holding it to your ear) and last but not least, cognitive distraction (dividing your attention between the road and the message content). Phone enthusiasts believe that drivers are now safer because of hands-free calling. Hands-free phones ‘ seemingly’ reduce the visual and manual distraction


The big unknown, the piece that we have no hard evidence about, is the cognitive distraction. Advocates like the Ford Motor Company argue  that voice-activated dashboard devices reduce some of the risks.  But, for a  counter-point see: The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety disputes the fundamental assumption that hands-free make us safer. Driving requires focused mental attention, but so do the words we pick and choose when we talk or search on our phones. Most of us overestimate our dexterity at switching between the road and a cognitively demanding task. That puts our lives, and the lives of others, at risk.

The month of April is a time of rebirth- it is when we celebrate Spring, religious holidays, the return of baseball, and, with less rejoicing, tax season. Bringing National Distracted Driver Awareness into that list seems like a noble pairing, but it resembles tax season in a significant way- if only we could understand it better and get the numbers straight.

Synergy: Autonomous Cars and Cell Phones


Synergy is a simple way to describe the relationship between  cell phones and autonomous cars. The more we use our cell phones, the more we need  to find a safer way to travel.

Most of us know that we are at greater risk for an accident when we use our phones and drive at the same time. Yet, we persist, and at any given time, an estimated nine percent of drivers are talking or texting (2011). The actual numbers may be higher, as evidenced by new 2016 data showing that motorist deaths are continuing to surge.

Engineers are developing autonomous cars to address virtuous needs like safer roads, mobility for the disabled and blind, and energy efficient travel. But, what about the “talk factor”,  the not-so-safe activity that happens in the background of vehicle trips?


Drivers and passengers  have tamed in-vehicle time by using their phones on the Internet, placing or receiving phone calls, and sending texts or chat. Our transportation models  consider the origin, where people travel from, and the destination, where people travel to. But, the research does not pay attention to what happens in the middle, the sandwich time between the endpoints.

Drivers who use their phones are distracted in several ways: visually, cognitively, and manually. The cell phone, as distraction, bears an interesting comparison with car radios. Are they a source of distraction, even though the “conversation” is one way?


Bill DeMain examines this issue in a 2012 article for Mental Floss. When car radios debuted in the 1930s, there was heightened concern that they would distract drivers. Reaching for the dials, and searching for a station could take a driver’s focus off the road.  A few states, Massachusetts, New York, and others, proposed fines if a driver installed a radio. It is vital to remember that these early cars lacked power steering and automatic transmissions, so driving safely required full attention and “two hands on-the wheel.”  

Early legislation to ban car radios failed, but it is reminiscent of today’s hard-to-enforce laws that prohibit texting while driving or hand-held devices.  

Today, close to a century later, you might expect that drivers are more familiar with their car radios, particularly as the controls and placement have simplified. Yet that is not the case. In 2002 the NHTSA reported that 66 percent of fatal car crashes involved  “Playing with the Radio or CD”.  In a more recent white paper the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) does not single out the car radio, but observes that sixteen percent (16%) of the fatal crashes in 2009 involved distracted driving. Police reports could visibly identify cell phones in nearly 20 percent of these fatalities, but the actual rate was thought to be larger.

In 2014 the NHTSA reported only 10% of fatal crashes and 18% of injury crashes were associated with distracted driving. That’s because NHTSA changed its standards for reporting distration. The new data set is not specific to cell phones, and includes all sources of driver distraction, including, of course, the radio. It is noteworthy that while people are driving more miles, there should be a safety offset from vehicle improvements such as air bags, assisted braking, and electronic stability control.  In their 2016 data analysis, The National Safety Council, a nonprofit group, indicates that traffic fatalities are growing at a pace that far exceed the three percent increase in miles driven .


But, on a more colloquial level, it seems that people now shop for a new car with connectivity, not safety, at the forefront. For example, a Car and Driver/Good Housekeeping selection for the best cars of 2017 indicates the new GMC Acadia has standout features: “The features of this SUV are:  (1) the Acadia seats up to seven (2) it has a Bose sound system and (3) it can serve as a WiFi hot spot perfect for road trips.”

Buyers of the Acadia and other vehicles like it, have a new found opportunity to fill the dead time when they travel, the time and the space between here and there. They can continue their online presence, even when they are behind the windshield. Intuitively, drivers know that they put themselves at some risk when they do so; it does not take a driver’s education class to understand there is heightened visual and cognitive distraction. Even with hands-free control, most drivers know that they are not as safe, but they continue to use their cell phones. If  they are lucky enough to own a Tesla, they interact with a giant touch screen.


Older people may be less adept overall with these technologies and have slower reflexes operating cell phones and touch-screens in the car. The MIT Age Lab and others study this in field work. One of the surprising results they  report is that drivers using voice command interfaces to control in-car navigation systems  sometimes spend longer with their eyes off the road than those using conventional systems. Moreover, there is no evidence that older drivers are safer operating the dials on the car radio, while younger people are safer and more adept with phones. 

Going forward, the only real solution to reduce accident rates for drivers of all ages is to take their hands, their minds, and their visual field completely off the road. Then, they can fully participate in and manipulate their online conversations, without fear of an accident. The desire to do this will move the technology. It will move it towards hands-free, hands-off trips in autonomous cars.