Paradise by the Dashboard Light?

Paradise by the Dashboard Light?

When Senator Charles Schumer proposed a federal ban on texting while driving, Ford was proud to be the first carmaker to endorse it.



When Senator Charles Schumer proposed a federal ban on texting while driving, Ford was proud to be the first carmaker to endorse it.

"The most complete and most recent research shows that activity that draws drivers’ eyes away from the road for an extended period while driving, such as text messaging, substantially increases the risk of accidents," said Susan Cischke, a Ford VP.

In fact, in 2008 nearly 6,000 highway deaths were caused by "distracted driving"–and many of those were due to cellphone use–according to the Washington Post. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called distracted driving a "deadly epidemic."

So it is more than a little hypocritical, outrageous, and infuriating that at the Detroit Auto Show this week, Ford will be touting its new "Internet dashboards" designed for easy use of Twitter and Facebook while driving.

Say what?

You read that right.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally told the Post that this "in-car connectivity strategy" is "core to [Ford’s] corporate turnaround" and that "these are the features that set us apart."

I truly view this issue as a matter of life and death. I think of my daughter–who like so many teens–lives with her Blackberry and only recently started driving. There is something so addictive and seductive about social connectivity, it is difficult to drop it at the car door. Now Ford wants to make it easier not to, and you can bet other automakers will follow suit if permitted.

Joan Claybrook, President Emeritus of Public Citizen, Board Co-Chair for the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and former Head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told me: "With everything going on with distracted driving, it’s amazing that the auto manufacturers would start distracting drivers even more. Some of them will say, ‘People don’t have to turn it on.’ Right," Claybrook laughed. "But they will. There is too much temptation. You’re listening to a radio program, you want to Twitter somebody. You start to use it."

And though young drivers are most clearly vulnerable to this kind oftechnology, there are plenty of "grown-ups" who feel the need to constantly be engaged with work. I’m sure most people reading this know someone addicted to their Blackberry–there is such intensity and anxiety about work.

But it is the younger generation I most worry about. If they grow up thinking this is a normal part of being in a car, where does it end? What are the boundaries? And with all of these fast-moving parts in their lives, how will we expect them to concentrate on anything in a substantive way–much less the road?

This should be a real wake up call for the public safety community to get involved.

"I think the federal government is going to react very negatively to this," said Claybrook. "And I work with other highway safety groups and I’m certainly going to encourage them to react negatively to this. But exactly what the outcome will be is hard to predict."

Once carmakers start talking about how this is key to revitalizing their industry who knows how the government will respond? Claybrook describes LaHood as an "ally" who is "generally safety-oriented but very moderate–he probably has an inclination to be cautious with the decisions he makes."

She suggests that people who want action on this issue call Secretary LaHood at (202) 366-1111. Also, the other key decision-maker–"a progressive guy"– is newly appointed head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, David Strickland. He can be reached at (202) 366-1836.

You want some bipartisanship? This is one we should be able to agree on. When you’re in your car, watch the road. The automobile is not avehicle for social networking.

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