DETROIT — In a 2011-model car during a recent Detroit Tigers baseball game, the display screen gave a number and encouraged drivers to “Text the Ticket” to join in a chat about the game.
Few rules limit the types of technology that automakers and their partners can bring into a vehicle, how they work and what’s off-limits.
Though 34 states ban texting while driving and 10 states and the District of Columbia ban using hand-held cellphones, there are no regulations limiting smartphone applications inside a car or factory-installed technologies that automakers or parts makers can make available to drivers.
For now, automakers are the judge and jury on what should be allowed.
“We do have moments when we receive applications that would work on MyFord Touch or Sync, but we don’t deem as appropriate when driving,” said Joe Beiser, manager of Ford Connected Services.
All this might change soon. In September, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will issue guidelines to ensure that technology built into new vehicles can be used safely.
“Teens’ use of mobile devices is the lifeblood of that generation’s entire social experience,” NHTSA administrator David Strickland said in May. “Rather than react to every technology as it pops up, NHTSA needs a framework that clearly defines the danger zone for the driver, allowing us to keep pace with the industry rather than playing catch-up.”
Bans on texting and hand-held cellphone use — and a crusading transportation secretary — are raising awareness of distracted driving, but inconsistent enforcement is a significant barrier to solving the problem.
Asked to describe the Michigan State Police’s enforcement effort of that state’s texting ban, Lt. Gary Megge said he didn’t have any statistics on violations state police officers have cited in the law’s first year.
“Unless you witness it, it is hard to enforce,” Megge said. “Is it a top five priority? The answer is probably not.”
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood led Distracted Driving summits in Washington in 2009 and 2010. He has asked executives from all the major automakers to make safety a priority as they introduce more infotainment services in new vehicles.
“I call it an epidemic, because everyone has one of these devices and everyone thinks they can use it, including in a car,” LaHood said, pulling his phone out of his pocket on a visit to Flint, Mich., in late June. “We’ve had success. A lot of people are talking about distracted driving now that weren’t talking about it.”
Awareness needs the support of good data. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the National Safety Council and others such as the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute have done valuable research.
Yet determining whether someone was on a cellphone or otherwise distracted when an accident happens often is difficult.
“We can rely on witnesses, especially a passenger in the same vehicle,” Megge said. Law enforcement agents can gain access to a driver’s cellphone records in Michigan, but the state police there only seeks them in serious injury or fatal accidents, he said.
The number of states banning texting while driving has more than tripled in the past two years to 34. Ten states and the District of Columbia ban all motorists from using hand-held cellphones while driving.
Only novice drivers are restricted from using hand-held cellphones while driving in 30 states, while seven states only ban texting by novice drivers.
Last month, NHTSA concluded a year-long study where police officials in Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, N.Y., aggressively enforced a cellphone ban and closely observed motorists’ cellphone use. NHTSA publicized a “Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other” campaign.
During the year of high enforcement, Syracuse police issued 9,587 tickets for talking or texting on cellphones while driving. Hartford police issued 9,685 tickets.
The results: Hand-held cellphone use while driving declined 57 percent in Hartford and 32 percent in Syracuse. Texting while driving fell 72 percent in Hartford and 32 percent in Syracuse. NHTSA attributed the difference to New York’s secondary enforcement policy, meaning police must pull over a driver for another offense. Connecticut’s texting ban calls for primary enforcement; police may pull over a driver for using a cellphone.
“I’m going to stay on my soapbox,” LaHood said. “By the end of the year, we will release a study on the cognitive distractions caused by a radio, cellphones, by GPS, by any number of other things that people now have in their cars. We’re going to get to a place where consumers will have adequate ways to control the distractions in their vehicles.”
Today there are no legal limits beyond texting and hand-held cellphone use. For example, if a vehicle-based system enables a driver to download photos or YouTube videos from a phone in the car, NHTSA has no regulation prohibiting that, said agency spokeswoman Lynda Tran.
Automakers, wireless providers and those creating smartphone applications are trying to set limits so their features are likelier to be used safely. But the more often their customers use those features, the more money they make.
“Limiting access to services is an easier solution than many of the features they are working so hard on to bring into the car,” said Dave Teater, a National Safety Council official who has worked with companies that can disable phones and other mobile devices when they’re in a moving vehicle. “At least we’d like to see them give their customers the option.”
Teater lost his son, Joe, in a 2004 crash caused by a woman driving while talking on her cellphone.
Emerging vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology could play a key role in preventing accidents from driver distraction in the future.
That technology uses wireless communication between vehicles, traffic signals, speed detection radar and smartphones to detect when other vehicles are running through traffic lights or creating other unforeseen threats. This technology then warns drivers so they can avoid the collision, even activating brakes automatically.
The systems are similar to the crash-avoidance systems the Federal Aviation Administration has been working on to prevent midair collisions.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is conducting research on the systems and estimates they could prevent up to 80 percent of potential crashes from distraction and other causes.
“We are extremely encouraged by the research, analysis of the safety data, and the ongoing work that all point to vehicle-to-vehicle as the next major safety breakthrough,” said National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator David Strickland.
The logical extension of this technology is Google’s driverless car.
The Silicon Valley giant declined a Detroit Free Press request to ride in one of its six automated cars. But Google is pushing Nevada’s legislature to allow test fleets and exempt their occupants from the state’s ban on texting while driving.
“I just don’t think the America public is ready for a driverless car,” Strickland said. “I’ve ridden in Google’s car and it is fantastic, but it is not foolproof.”