Uncle Sam: Put Down That iPhone

The administration’s latest dot-gov wants American drivers to focus on the road. But how will the populace react to chiding while driving?
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The Department of Transportation recently unveiled the latest in the federal government’s ever-expanding arsenal of dot-govs: Distraction.gov, the “Official U.S. Government Website for Distracted Driving.” (There is no unofficial U.S. government Web site for distracted driving, but it’s always good to be clear.)

The site is the interactive face of a 6-month-old campaign by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to confront the novel road-safety challenges that accumulate faster than Steve Jobs can think up new handheld technology. On the one hand, a Web site makes sense: LaHood probably isn’t going to reach his intended and distracted tech-savvy audience with old-school PSAs.

But while everyone can agree on the politically neutral goal of keeping our roads safe, an aggressive distracted driving campaign coming from the federal government is uniquely positioned to tweak nanny-state unease.

“We are leading the effort but you are the key to preventing distracted driving,” Distraction.gov’s landing page announces. “The message is simple — Put it down!”

The site, though, doesn’t specify exactly what “it” is, because therein lies the gray area. Should you put down the cell phone you’re texting on? That sounds reasonable. What about the cell phone you’re using to make phone calls? Or the McNuggets you eat en route from one appointment to the next? The toddler’s toy just flung from the back seat? Your compact?

Some research suggests that hands-free cell phone conversations can distract a driver just as much as talking on a handheld cell can. But isn’t doing the former more or less akin to talking in person to your passenger? Should you stop doing that as well?

Cell phones weren’t specifically invented to be used in cars, and so maybe you can figure out how to do without. But what about in-car technology that both distracts and aids, like electronic navigation units? Or more advanced technology built into cars that haven’t even been designed yet?

Americans don’t particularly like to be told what to do in their private homes, and so shifting the debate to automobiles will inevitably be complicated. So far, the actual federal rule-making hasn’t extended to private citizens in their personal cars, although 19 states (and Guam) have passed texting bans.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

What the government has done so far is mandate the behavior of federal employees. After LaHood held a distracted driving summit last fall, President Obama issued an executive order designed in part to show that Washington is leading by example. Three million federal employees are now barred from texting while driving government vehicles, while driving personal vehicles on government business, or while using government-issued electronic equipment while driving any vehicle anywhere. Government contractors must get in line as well. Law-enforcement and emergency-response gadgets are exempted.

Then, in January, LaHood extended the federal texting ban to commercial truck drivers. The American Trucking Associationsapproved of the move, but state-level officials have been fuzzy on how to enforce it. At stake is a fine of up to $2,750.

For everyone else, the policy solutions are less clear, and so Distraction.gov is trying to at least better define the problem. The DOT is building a searchable database of research on the topic and currently links a handful of convincing papers (much of it academic work the DOT stresses it doesn’t necessarily endorse).

One analysis of crash data from the late ’90s — a timeframe that suggests researchers, and not just the government, will struggle to keep up with new technology — concluded that 1.5 percent of crashes were caused by using or dialing a cell phone, compared with 1.7 percent from eating or drinking. Another paper found that cell phone use reduces brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent. And in another study, 80 percent of accidents researched involved “driver inattention” — broadly defined as eating, writing, talking to passengers or looking around the inside of the car — within the three seconds prior to the crash.

The evidence mounts that there is a problem. But given our love of gadgets — many designed precisely to facilitate mobile lives — and our discomfort with government directives on how to use them, LaHood may find that the best he can do is build a Web site about it.

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