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road safety

Distracted driving kills.

I cannot be any more clear than that. Neither can the U.S. Government, which says exactly that in its Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving.

At this point, you might be asking what Ottawa has to say on the subject. Fair question. The answer is that Ottawa is embarrassingly silent on the matter and the provinces only dabble at the fringes of the distracted driving crisis.

So the big debate is taking place south of the border, even though the issues remain exactly the same in Canada. Here's the nut of the problem, says the Blueprint: "With more than 300 million wireless subscriptions in America today – and a growing number of devices and services designed to keep people constantly connected – technology is playing an increasing role in enhancing our quality of life. Yet using these technologies while you're behind the wheel can have devastating consequences."

Such as? The U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) figures "distraction-affected crashes" kill at least 3,000 people a year. Not all deaths are related to texting or talking on the phone or some confused driver racing along at 110 km/h while trying to figure out how to use one of the many user-unfriendly electronic interface to change the radio station or turn up the fan.

But the Blueprint argues, convincingly, that texting just might kill you. It is "among the worst of all driver distractions." In the United States, various surveys suggest that more than 100,000 drivers are texting at any given daylight moment. More 600,000 drivers are holding phones to their ears while driving, too, even though most U.S. states and Canadian provinces now ban texting and holding a mobile phone while driving.

"Sending or receiving a text takes a driver's eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent – at 55 mph [or 88 km/h] – of driving the length of an entire football field, blind," says the Blueprint.

Baby boomers like me are not so likely to be text-crazed drivers, but we do like to yak on the phone. The real worry is that younger drivers, drivers who have grown up tap-tap-tapping their hand-held keyboards, are poised to become the dominant force on the roads.

You see, Gen Y buyers born in the early 1980s through the early 1990s, Automotive News notes, represent two of five car buyers, according to a study last year by consulting firm Deloitte, adding that some estimates have them purchasing 75 per cent of vehicles by 2025.

Here's why that should worry you: the Blueprint reports that data show "drivers under 25 are two to three times more likely than older drivers to send text messages or e-mails while driving."

There's more. A new investigation by Consumer Reports, one that reviewed a pile of data, found that, "Mile for mile, the crash rate for drivers ages 16 and 17, for example, is almost nine times as high as that for middle-aged drivers." The Blueprint points to a Pew study that found "about 40 per cent of all American teens say they have been in a car when the driver used a cellphone in a way that put people in danger."

The Associated Press reports that a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in the United States, about 58 per cent of Grade 12 students said they had texted or e-mailed while driving during the previous month. About 43 per cent of Grade 11 students said they did the same thing.

You and I, we've seen this this sort of thing in action – we probably see it every day. Just hours before I sat down to write this, I was crawling through the usual Highway 401 snarl north of Toronto watching the driver ahead of me weave around as he steered his old Chevy Corsica with his knee while tapping away on his smart phone. The evil side of me hoped he would drive straight into the guardrail, while the practical side of me feared he'd just bang into the driver ahead, creating even worse gridlock. Somehow he avoided both, but not by much. Sound familiar? Of course.

Governments in both Canada and the United States have moved to outlaw texting and hand-held yakking, but that's only a start. The range of portable gadgets is exploding, from tablets and pads, to navigations systems and evermore complex/capable smart phones. We're now entering an age when it's possible to surf the Web, Facebook (yes, that's a verb now) and Tweet while driving. These distractions are not going away.

So regulators are looking at more comprehensive rules to govern the use by drivers of these more complicated devices. At the same time, those same regulators are pushing car companies on two fronts: first, to simplify in-car devices, with an eye to making voice-activated controls less distracting. At the same time, car companies are moving to load up the latest models with crash warning and driver monitoring technologies with the goal being to help gizmo-addled drivers avoid crashing despite themselves.

I've read NHTSA's recommendations and it seems clear that the car companies can do their part by simply complying with them. That is, in-car devices from the factory should be simple and quick to operate. As NHTSA suggests, to complete a task, no gadget should require more than two seconds or more than one or two inputs. That sounds straightforward enough, yet I road-test plenty of vehicles with gadget interfaces that call for six inputs just to change the radio station.

We can also expect regulators to explore ways to require that in-car gadgets be disabled for manual texting when a vehicle is in motion. Ditto for Internet and social media browsing, mobile phone dialling and navigation inputting. I am for all of this. I'd like to see drivers busy themselves with the driving and leave the texting and the surfing and the Facebooking to another time and another place.

The problem is, I am more than likely living in a fantasy world, hoping to find a parallel universe free of excessive gadgetry. The fact is, the gizmo genie is already out of the bottle. Most people just love their devices too much, they rely on them too much, to surrender them, even when it makes sense. This is especially true of the newest, youngest and most vulnerable drivers.

So the best we can hope for is more laws governing individual behaviour. Some might even have a positive impact. I am most optimistic about two approaches.

First, laws and regulations that put limits on what a gadget can do inside a moving vehicle have a chance to work. We have the technology to shut down gadgets when vehicles are moving right now, in fact. And second, the car companies are going to refine the human interface side of technology, with the ultimate goal being natural speech recognition. The day is coming, perhaps sooner than you think, when you'll just talk to your car, naturally, and it will understand your commands quickly and seamlessly.

That's the day I start calling my car "Hal" and I start worrying about it taking over my life completely, just as we saw in Stanley Kubrick's prescient film 2001: A Space Odyssey.