Will Technology Save Us From Texting While Driving?

Everyone wants texting while driving to stop. It’s already illegal in 28 states, including New York, New Jersey, Michigan and California. Even hard-driving libertarians acknowledge that, whatever their reservations about illegalization, it’s a foolhardy practice that should be discouraged.

Foolhardy? Research conducted by no less than Car & Driver magazine indicated that texting while driving could actually be more dangerous than drinking while driving. They found that reaction times were better when drivers were drunk compared to when they were reading or sending text messages while sober. That’s because when a driver takes his eyes off the road, it cuts down on the ability to react to changes even more than alcohol does.

In 2008, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that almost 6,000 fatalities and over half a million injuries were due to accidents caused by drivers who were distracted. The study wasn’t focused on texting, but it’s a sobering statistic nonetheless, suggesting the seriousness of the problem.

Legal bans haven’t stopped people from texting at the wheel. Even people who admit that it’s dangerous still do it. The lure of texting is too powerful. So the search for a technology to save us from our technology continues. Global Positioning Systems are helpful, but they can easily be bypassed, and experts say they eat up battery life. In any case, only a small percentage of drivers use the GPS option to avoid texting.

But the story of Katasi — a company with  technology that will not only discourage but prevent texting while driving — illustrates just how elusive new solutions to such problems can be.

Inventor Scott Tibbitts, a chemical engineer who built motors and docking stations for NASA, came up with an almost foolproof method for blocking incoming and outgoing texts and preventing phone calls from reaching a driver. The technology works via a small square box that plugs into the OBD 2 port under the steering column, and almost all cars will be fitted for it by 2025.

Tibbetts got backing for his project from American Family Insurance and Sprint. AFI put up the money; Sprint agreed in principle to allow Mr. Tibbitts’s company, Katasi, to use its network to stop texts. 

The ultimate answer appeared to be just around the corner.

But then economics began to catch up with ingenious technology and good intentions. Sprint executives were having second thoughts about market potential and investment risks.

They also became hesitant about legal liability. What would happen if the technology let one text slip through, and someone reading the message got into a crash?

“If that one message does get through, and someone [had] understood, ‘I bought this and I’ll be safe,’ what does that mean for our brand and our business?” they asked.

Some think the liability issue is just a smokescreen for the profit issue, although one Sprint spokesman said the company’s concern is “not about profit; it is about doing the right thing.”

Whether you believe him or not is up to you. But in the meantime, the reality is that America stands on the threshold of eradicating this scourge and hesitates to move forward.

Yet, as is so often the case, the statistics may not be as straight down the middle of the road as they seem. Research is ongoing, and cannot yet be considered conclusive.

The broader statistical picture suggests that the hazard of texting may be overdrawn. As public policy analyst Radley Balko points out, since 1995 there’s been an eightfold increase in cellphone subscribers in the United States, and the number of minutes spent on cellphones rose phenomenally, by a factor of 58.

Yet traffic fatalities have dropped slightly — but they’ve dropped. Overall reported accidents since 1997 have dropped too, from 6.7 million to 6 million.

Proponents of a ban on cellphones argue that if texting were eliminated those numbers would have dropped much more. But that belongs to the what-ifs of history, to all those retrospective conundrums for which we will never have the answer.

What we do know is that, once again, we have met up with the imponderables of public safety. How far should government or private industry go in protecting us from ourselves? How much are we willing to pay for the ultimate in safety measures? Are the dangers really proven? Are the precautionary bans enforceable? (For example, traffic policemen have had a tough time spotting a texter versus someone just reading a text, which is legal in some states that have partial bans.)

In the meantime, we will muddle through with bans, partial bans, and driver’s-ed safety campaigns. We can hope that texting while driving will gradually fade away, like last century’s fashions … until the wonderful day of the self-driving car arrives, and we can do whatever we want behind the wheel while the car drives for us.

Until, that is, we awaken to the as-yet-unforeseen perils of the self-driving car.