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The NTSB Recommended In-Vehicle Cell Phone Use Ban – Technology Can Solve the Problem

I’ve been a converged device (PDA and multimedia) and mobile devices advocate for nearly two decades.  The implementation of technology at the consumer level in modern society has not only brought about advances in society and culture, but has stimulated the economy and created jobs during a time when they were sorely needed. However, the application of this technology, specifically social networking applications and tools in the cell and/or smartphone has created a new wave of hazards that many are finding difficult to resist…especially when they really can’t afford to be distracted – like while they’re driving or walkingthe busy streets of a humming city, like Chicago, for instance. I noticed yesterday on MSN that the National Transportation Safety Board is recommending that all states ban the use of mobile devices, with the exception of navigation devices – even those that employ hands free communication via Bluetooth or a wired headset – in all motor vehicles. There have been a number of response articles to this, including one on Information Week.  Most of these articles, including the one at Information Week recount the decision and comments made by the NTSB Chairman, Deborah Hersman; and invite readers to comment. Unfortunately all of this REALLY hits me the wrong way.

I’m a Quality Assurance director by day.  Its my responsibility to analyze problems, determine their root cause and develop action plans to resolve the issue and prevent it from recurring. I see the NTSB vote and ultimately its recommendation as very misinformed as to the root cause of the problem – the distracted driver. What I, and a number of different people have not seen from the news articles and NTSB recommendation, is what alternatives the agency considered before making its recommendation.  And while I assume that an agency as influential and important as the NTSB would have explored technology-based solutions and alternatives to their recommended ban, I really can’t make that assumption, and neither should you.  Everything relevant that has been published thus far that I’ve found fails to cite any of their thought processes or considered alternatives.

However, the NTSB and the world must realize that smartphones, tablets and other mobile computing devices are NOT going to go away. Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the like are here to stay. Texting revenues for all of the cell carriers amount in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars annually.  Use of these tools and technologies is only going to increase as time goes on.  The better thing do to instead of banning them in a motor vehicle, is to insure that they function appropriately in that motor vehicle, while the engine is on and the vehicle is moving.

For example,

  1. Require Bluetooth to be implemented in all mobile hardware (cell phone, smartphones, tablets, etc)
  2. Require built-in, hands free car kits in all new motor vehicles
  3. Require Bluetooth enabled, professionally installed and/or NTSB endorsed, 3rd party, aftermarket car kits for all existing vehicles.
  4. Implement a method by which the driver’s smartphone disables ALL, non-navigational data transmissions (so the phone can’t text, surf, etc.) while the motor vehicle is moving.  This could be easily done with a Bluetooth profile – the OS could simply disable all non-navigational data transmissions when the GPS receiver determines that the phone is traveling at a sustained speed faster than say, 15 miles per hour. The Bluetooth profile would need to distinguish between a Bluetooth headset and a car kit.  Most profiles don’t do this today.

While this may require software updates to existing and new phones, and may require additional hardware or accessories, this is the more appropriate mandate. It should be easy to implement given that most smartphones support OTA (Over the Air) updates and that GPS hardware is already in most of them (and perhaps some high end feature phones, as well). Specifically, it

  • Supports the implementation of new jobs by employing additional hardware and software design, development and sales engineers.
  • Saves current jobs by preventing the recall and disablement of existing hands free features in most Fordand other vendor’s automobiles, thereby saving the jobs of existing hardware and software engineers, testers., and assembly line auto workers.
  • Appropriately addresses the root cause of the problem of cell phone based, distracted driving by turning off the social networking features in mobile devices in a moving vehicle, and reenables them after the vehicle stops and the engine is turned off.

Obviously, in order to satisfy the intent of this recommendation – to save the lives of American citizens and tourists – its going to require individuals at the NTSB and all Mobile Communications Carriers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, etc.) as well as all mobile device hardware manufacturers like HTC, Motorola, Samsung, and Apple, to name a few, to work together and think out of the box. This should be an easy get, and its reasonable to expect that it should beimplemented in such a way that it won’t be expensive for the consumer.

To put it another way, doctors wouldn’t want to amputate a person’s leg simply because a patient developed an infected toe. It simply doesn’t make sense. Treating the infection and/or localizing the amputation to the effected toe or area is a more appropriate solution than immediate amputation.  It also still allows the patient to maintain a holistic image of himself and more importantly, to walk.

If something like my above suggestions are, or were, NOT considered, then the issue that the NTSB is attempting to address must also include a recommended ban on

  • Multipassenger motor vehicles
  • Children in ANY motor vehicle, especially school buses
  • Radios and/or any music/media playing devices in any and all motor vehicles
  • Eating and/or drinking in any motor vehicle
  • Applying make-up in any motor vehicle
  • Any activity other than driving inside any motor vehicle

The issue is distracted driving. Period. The issue is NOT mobile device use by a driver.  The NTSB should not single out this individual, potential causeof distracted driving if they are not going to also recommend a ban on anything and everything that causes driver distraction. The recommendation was merely low hanging fruit, politically volatile and an easy attention and headline grabber.

I would like to challenge Deborah Hersman and her talented team at the NTSB to revisit this recommended technology ban. In my opinion as a mobile devices expert, a better solution is to employ technology to control the technology, not to forbid its use.

I’m also available to help – advise, consult, etc. – should the NTSB like to explore this further.

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