Ford Motor Co. has become the first automaker to openly call for a nationwide ban on the use of handheld cellular phones.
The maker’s unusually public pronouncement, which lent support to a measure now before Congress, comes as a new study by the Governors Highway Safety Association releases results of a new study on distracted driving. It found that in 80 out of 100 car crashes studies the driver had turned away from the road at the time of impact.
In particular, the GHSA study revealed that drivers are four times as likely to have a crash while using a handheld phone as those not talking while behind the wheel. But the data also raised a note of caution about efforts to curtail distracted driving, reflecting recent studies finding that existing bans on the use of handheld phones already in place have had limited impact.
A proposal by NY Democrat Carolyn McCarthy would compel all 50 states to ban motorists from using handheld phones while driving. And Pete Lawson, Ford’s Vice President of Government Affairs, has hailed that as a positive step.
The measure before Congress, “represents a practical, commonsense approach to a national problem” and that the company believed “drawing drivers’ eyes away from the road — whether (by) text messaging, manually dialing a cell phone or reading maps — substantially increases the risk of an accident or near misses.”
What Cong. McCarthy dubbed, “proactive” legislation would specifically target handheld phones, but the measure eventually might reach more broadly because it would require federal safety regulators to study other possible “cognitive distractions,” including hands-free calling and other in-car infotainment systems.
That may explain why other automakers, including General Motors, which have previously spoken out against handheld phones, failed to lend direct support to the McCarthy measure.
Indeed, Ford itself could have the proposal backfire were regulators to start homing in on the expanding list of in-car systems, such as the maker’s popular Sync. Ford just revealed it is beta-testing a new Operator Assist system that would allow users to connect to a live operator, taking a lead from GM’s long-running OnStar. (Click Here for more.) Infiniti, meanwhile, has launched the live operator-based Infiniti Personal Assistant. (For more on that, Click Here.)
Ray U.S. Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood has made it one of his primary goals to reduce the dangers of distracted driving – though his broad definition of the term has occasionally conflicted with the automotive and telecommunications industries.
But there’s a steady flow of research revealing just how serious the problem is.
The Governors Highway Safety Association, or GHSA, study showed American motorists spent about 7% of their time behind the wheel talking on the phone, whether using hands-free or handheld systems. But it stressed that texting “likely increases” the risk of a collision more than using the phone.
The GHSA report blamed distracted driving for anywhere from 15 to 25% of all crashes, “at all levels from minor property damage to fatal injury.”
The good news, it stated, is that “drivers adapt to some extent” when distracted. Other research has shown that someone on the phone is more likely to slow down, leave a greater gap between cars or move out of the speed lane, for example.
The association called for banning texting universally and for barring “novice” drivers from using either handheld or hands-free phones.
But GHSA Executive Director Barbara Harsha also sounded a note of caution, adding that, “Until more research is conducted, states need to proceed thoughtfully, methodically and objectively.”
While the study did find some benefits from current bans on texting and handheld phone use, other reports suggest motorists are still yakking away where such efforts are barred.