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Boy quickly scootering home in the rain is about to be hit by a man who is texting while driving. (iStockphoto)
Boy quickly scootering home in the rain is about to be hit by a man who is texting while driving. (iStockphoto)

Globe editorial

Smartphone companies and carmakers need to fight distracted driving Add to ...

A 30-minute video by the great German director Werner Herzog about the perils of texting while driving sends a powerful and needed message, but the fact it was sponsored by America’s largest cellphone service providers raises a timely question: Are cellphone and automobile manufacturers doing enough to keep the public safe as cars become, essentially, smartphones on wheels?

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Mr. Herzog, who directed Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, says he was approached by AT&T with the idea of telling the stories of people who have been killed or injured in car accidents caused by drivers who were distracted by a text message. The movie, From One Second to the Next, also points the camera at the guilty drivers themselves, and on the terrible remorse they feel.

The stories are devastating. The film anchors a website, itcanwait.com, that is co-sponsored by AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, the four main service providers in the United States. Mr. Herzog’s movie will be shown in 40,000 schools; people who visit the website are urged to sign a pledge not to text while driving.

This is beyond laudable. But cellphone manufacturers and carmakers also need to take steps to actively prevent drivers from taking their eyes off the road.

Seatbelts and child-restraint systems are mandatory in Canadian passenger vehicles; in the U.S., airbags are compulsory. Automakers should similarly be required to install safety measures suited to the era we live in, such as technology that sharply limits access to in-dash communications and navigation systems while a car is in motion.

Smartphone manufacturers should be obliged to use the device’s built-in accelerometers to actively warn users away from texting from a handset when it is in a moving car, and include, as part of the basic phone software, an optional setting to lock out the texting function. It would be wrong to make it compulsory to turn off the texting and calling functions of any phone moving more than 15 km per hour; passengers and people using mass transit have the right to use their devices. But to ignore the issue as more and more drivers use their smartphones behind the wheel is unacceptable.

Distracted driving caused by text-messaging causes more than more than 200,000 accidents a year in the U.S. alone. All of Canada except Nunavut fines drivers caught texting at the wheel. According to statistics gathered by the Canadian Automobile Association, “80 per cent of collisions and 65 per cent of near-crashes have some form of driver inattention as contributing factors.” The Ontario Provincial Police report that distracted driving now kills more people in Ontario than drunk driving and speeding combined. Traffic fatalities, including pedestrian deaths, were on the decline in North America in the first part of the century but then started increasing in 2010 – the year that smartphones became ubiquitous. The link between the dual increases in smartphones and the number of traffic fatalities is still largely circumstantial, but evidence is mounting that texting while driving, and smartphone use in general, is rapidly becoming the leading threat to public safety on our roads. Statistically, a driver who is texting is 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident than someone who is watching the road.

In spite of the growing recognition of the dangers of smartphones and distracted driving, smartphone companies and car makers are working together to make car dashboards an extension of smartphones. People spend hours in their car each day, and they expect to be able to pair their two most ubiquitous pieces of technology. Apple recently announced that the next update to its operating system, to be released next month, will include “iOS in the Car,” an option that will allow users to operate their iPhones from a built-in screen on their dashboard using voice commands.

These in-dash, voice-activated systems will be safer than thumbing “I’m on my way” into a handset while driving at 80 km an hour; the systems will read a text out loud and allow users to dictate a response. But they will also be a source of new distractions. Drivers will be able to do Internet searches, find nearby restaurants and even order a coffee while driving toward their favourite Starbucks.

Car manufacturers are aware of the potential dangers. Many (but not all) existing in-dash navigation systems prevent drivers from carrying out tasks that move their eyes from the road to the dash for more than a second or two once a car starts to move.

Smartphone companies are similarly aware of the danger but reluctant to draw attention to it. Safety systems are available for smartphone owners who don’t link their phones into a car system – but not from the smartphone makers themselves. It has been up to third-party companies to develop apps that block the calling and texting functions of a phone travelling at more than 15 km per hour.

For smartphone makers to be capable of actively discouraging people from texting while driving, but then failing to do so, is tantamount to willful ignorance of a serious social problem. Why is it that an iPhone, when in a speeding car, doesn’t warn drivers that, “Operating a handset while driving is dangerous and illegal. It can wait”?

Turning cars into rolling smartphones is well and good, but auto makers surely recognize they are importing the risks along with the benefits. Using voice commands to send texts may reduce distraction, but it doesn’t eliminate it. It will be years before new safety features and effective voice-command systems filter through the market.

In the meantime, all but the most basic and hands-free functions of a dashboard system, whether it is proprietary or linked to a popular smartphone, should be blocked in cars moving at more than 15 km an hour. This is one thing that can’t wait.

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