The United States Department of Transportation is trying to gain regulatory control over driving apps like Google Maps. Distracted driving is the cause of the majority of crashes in this country, and drivers looking at directions on their phones while driving make up a lot of those accidents. Texting while driving is also a major cause of distracted driving wrecks.
This is a serious problem. There were over 90,000 collisions caused by distracted driving in 2012 just in Texas, causing 453 people to die, and over 18,000 people to be injured.
The measure, part of a transportation bill proposted by the Obama Administration, would specify that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has the authority to set restrictions on the apps. It could later order changes if they are deemed dangerous, which is similar to the authority it has with regards to mechanical features of cars.
The measure has the support of automakers, which already mostly comply with voluntary guidelines for built-in navigation systems. However the proposal has run into stiff opposition from technology companies who sell the GPS products, which say that any such law would be impractical and impossible to enforce.
Most smartphone users are familiar with straightforward navigation aids like Google Maps and Apple Maps. Looking at these is bad enough if it forces the driver to take his eyes off the road, even for a few seconds. But others, like Waze, rely on a social network of users to report road conditions, hazards and the presence of police cars in real time. This sort of input increases the amount of time users are looking at their screens as they enter information.
Waze warns that “Sending traffic updates and text messages to the service while you drive is strictly prohibited.” The app’s prevents a report while the car is in motion, unless the user hits a button saying a passenger is making the entry. Unfortunately, there is nothing to prevent a driver from hitting the passenger button.
Safety advocates say regulators need to do more. “We absolutely need to be looking at these nomadic devices,” said Deborah A. P. Hersman, president of the National Safety Council, a nonprofit group chartered by Congress, and a former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Currently, navigation apps are a gray area when it comes to laws banning the use of cellphones or texting while driving. They require the handheld use of a phone and cause the same problems as texting, but are not explicitly banned in most jurisdictions. Texas is one of the only state that permits almost unlimited driving and cell phone use, including texting.
Two years ago, Steven Spriggs, a California driver, received a $165 ticket for using his iPhone while driving in stop-and-go traffic near Fresno. A police officer came up beside his car and saw the screen’s glow on the driver’s face.
“I held it up and said, ‘It’s a map,'” Mr. Spriggs said. He was not talking on the phone, which is prohibited by California law.
But the police officer was not swayed. “He said, ‘Pull over, it doesn’t matter.'”
Mr. Spriggs fought the ticket but was ultimately convicted. An appeals court ruled this year that it did matter, and Mr. Spriggs’s conviction was reversed.
I hope the technology companies and department of transportation can figure out a solution to this problem. Distracted driving causes far too many crashes. I’ve been handling car accident injury cases for 34 years and without a doubt, the rise of cell phones and now smart phones has significantly increased the number of calls I get about crashes caused by distracted drivers.
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