Viewpoint: Want Safer Drivers? Embrace, Don’t Ban, Technology

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The federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently announced guidelines calling for automakers to put limits on the installation of electronic devices in new cars, including a provision that most Internet-linked applications must be disabled while the car is in motion. But if the goal is to prevent fatalities, these guidelines show some misguided priorities — and could prevent further innovation from addressing some deadly issues. Technology is the solution to dangerous driving, not the main culprit behind it.

Let me be clear: I’m not advocating for texting while driving. I signed the No Phone Zone pledge, and think that people who text while driving are just plain stupid. But let’s look at the statistics to put things in perspective.

In 2011, distracted driving caused about 10 percent of traffic deaths, or 3,331 fatalities. Drunk drivers led to the deaths of three times as many people. Not wearing a seatbelt caused more than half of all fatal injuries to passengers.

(MORE: Will Self-Driving Cars Change the Rules of the Road?)

“Distracted driving” is not even exclusively defined as car infotainment systems or mobile devices. It can be anything from looking at something outside to applying makeup to trying to deal with a rogue insect — all of which have higher odds of resulting in crashes than dialing or talking on a hand-held device, according to a 2010 NHSTSA-sponsored study. And while there were 64 more deaths in 2011 than in 2010 from distraction-related crashes, the number of people injured in such accidents dropped by about 29,000 in the same period.

Contrary to the negative reputation that tech companies have for cranking out too many distracting gizmos, many startups are actually focusing on making driving easier and safer. Just look at the thousands of traffic apps that give you real-time updates for a smooth trip, including my favorite, Waze. Other companies are discouraging distracted driving by developing programs to keep drivers awake and alert — NoNap has an earpiece that sounds a buzzer if it senses your head starting to droop into sleep-mode, and Anti-Sleep Pilot periodically asks drivers to tap the screen to measure their alertness and recommends when they need to pull over. With drowsy driving causing more than 100,000 crashes each year, these innovations could help slash that figure.

(MORE: Whose Fault Is a Driverless-Car Crash?)

Meanwhile, since drunk driving kills so many people, there is a wasted opportunity here to campaign for automakers to install breathalyzers in new vehicles. Interlock-ignition devices already exist, where cars won’t start without drivers blowing clean into breathalyzers that are attached to dashboards and connected to the ignition. They have become court-ordered vehicle accessories for some DUI offenders, but they’re not in the general market as a prevention tool. Here’s an idea: If you are going to mandate the use of technology, why not mandate breathalyzers to start the car if you are a driver under 21 years old and driving after dark?

And where are seatbelt sensors that would require everyone to be buckled in for the ignition to turn on? That alone could have changed the fates of the more than 11,000 passengers who died in 2011 when they weren’t restrained during an accident. We can use technology as a nudge to make people more intelligent and safe passengers.

The government shouldn’t go after low-hanging, low-impact fruit when it comes to life-and-death traffic issues. Entrepreneurs invented everything we use in our lives, and entrepreneurs hold the keys to safer and more intelligent daily living. Technology solutions can make us safer drivers, and if our government wants to get involved, it should be to focus on the highest impact ways that these solutions can save lives.

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