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Lessons Learned on Two Lanes in Texas

by Roger Lanctot | Apr 06, 2017

Some of the most terrifying highways in the world are sinuous and hilly rural two-lane roads with relatively high speed limits. Such were the circumstances in rural Texas March 29th when a Dodge pickup truck driven by an allegedly distracted driver crossed the centerline of the highway and collided with a converted Ford van resulting in the deaths of 13 occupants of the van.

http://tinyurl.com/mjtrxth - "Deadly Church Bus Crash: What We Know Now" - ABCNews

http://tinyurl.com/m5vhvra - "Video: Erratic Driver Swerves on Texas Highway Moments Before Striking Church Bus, Killing 13 - Mysanantonio.com

The event was remarkable not only for the extraordinary and avoidable loss of life, but also for a number of unusual circumstances including:

  • A real-time eyewitness account and video of the Dodge driver's erratic driving immediately preceding the crash;
  • Multiple phone calls by the witness to multiple police jurisdictions reporting the erratic driving and asking for help to get the Dodge driver off the road;
  • The driver's alleged admission post-crash to having been texting while driving
  • The lack of any law in Texas prohibiting texting and driving

As terrifying as this tragedy was given the visual record of the Dodge driver's behavior, it is yet more terrifying to know that regulators and law makers appear to remain stumped as to how to prevent such crashes from recurring. Anyone at any moment could fall victim to the next irresponsible texting driver.

Employers that provide phones or vehicles to their employees are immediately exposed to liability should those phones or vehicles be misused. Companies like Cellepathy provide software-based solutions for limiting smartphone use while driving and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued guidelines for mitigating distraction while using smartphones in vehicles - but compliance is voluntary and sanctions are few or non-existent.

Car makers and wireless carriers bear some responsibility. Car makers have introduced smartphone connections in cars intended to limit or eliminate direct access to smartphone functions like texting.

Unfortunately, most drivers using smartphones continue to use their devices without connecting them. Car makers Ford and General Motors have introduced systems to encourage teen drivers to buckle up and remain focused while driving, but these systems stop short of limiting smartphone functions.

Wireless carriers have mounted public service messaging campaigns such as AT&T's "It can wait." anti-texting-and-driving effort. Wireless carriers have not taken the step of trying to determine whether and when phones are being used in cars by drivers and automatically limiting functionality.

Cellepathy has made significant progress in developing solutions for businesses seeking to limit smartphone misuse by employees. The Cellepathy approach is designed to determine when a person is in a vehicle and/or whether that person is a driver or passenger. The company has also suggested modifications to the NHTSA driver distraction guidelines whereby an app can discriminate the type of vehicle as well - in order to differentiate public and private transportation use cases.

In comments written in response to NHTSA's second stage driver distraction guidelines released late last year, Cellepathy executives highlighted the responsibility of Apple and Alphabet to build a Driver Mode into their operating system software. Cellepathy made its opinion known in a formal NHTSA filing: "Docket comments to NHTSA-2013-0137 Draft Visual-Manual NHTSA Driver Distraction Guidelines for Portable and Aftermarket Devices (the “Guidelines”)"

Excerpted:

"The OS and device manufacturers (together, the “Makers”) are uniquely qualified to build Driver Mode. Unfortunately, to date, this task has been left to third-party developers of distracted driving prevention systems like Cellepathy – who are far less well equipped to do so. Building the OS-level features that Driver Mode requires, without access to the lower-level OS functionalities that only Makers have, is an incredibly complex task. It is also a tremendous duplication of effort and waste of scarce resources which has resulted in many distracted driving innovators abandoning their efforts, or going bankrupt over the years...Specifically, the Guidelines should explicitly recommend that Driver Mode be designed in such a way that third-party software can programmatically activate it and fully configure it. This is an absolute requirement for continued innovation in the distracted driving safety space.

"If the Makers (Apple, Google, and others) build a Driver Mode that can only be activated by pairing the phone to a vehicle or pressing a button, Cellepathy and technology providers like us will be excluded from the playing field."

If Apple and Alphabet were forced to confront THEIR liability in crashes such as last week's - crashes which NHTSA estimates suggest are taking nearly 4,000 lives annually - perhaps some progress might be achieved. In considering the events surrounding the Texas crash and the resulting 13 fatalities it is easy to understand why former National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman was in favor of banning smartphone use in cars altogether. (It is interesting to note that the NTSB and news report prominently describe the makes and models of the cars involved. Perhaps the make and model of the smartphone used by the driver and his wireless carrier should be named as well in future reports.)

NHTSA may bear responsibility for setting standards for vehicle design, but it is the NTSB that is responsible for investigating crashes such as the one in Texas. Neither agency has authority over the design of smartphones - at least at this time. In fact, NHTSA was recently brushed back by the Consumer Technology Association when the agency attempted to assert some regulator authority over smartphones.

One final remedy and source of responsibility lies with the car makers themselves. The video recorded by the eyewitness to the pre-crash driving behavior includes audio revealing the repeated pleas of the following driver for authorities to do something to stop the driver of the Dodge. Those pleas are packed with multiple implications including:

  • Might it be possible, in the future, for systems built into a car (ie. lane keeping or lane departure warning) to take control of the vehicle and/or notify the maker of the vehicle or law enforcement to its errant operation?
  • Shouldn't the wireless carrier be capable of determining when a smartphone on the network is being used in a vehicle by a driver, enabling the carrier to take action?
  • Shouldn't a system be in place for notifying other drivers of the existence of a reckless driver in the area - along the lines of Germany's Gheisterfahrer (ghost/wrong way drivers) or Amber alerts?

All of this is to say that there is a role for technology to be used to solve a technology-related problem. It's also likely that there is an important role for regulators and legislators to play. One bit of good news is that the crash will likely push Texas legislators to get over their resistance to enacting anti-texting legislation. But there is more work to be done by multiple parties to prevent yet another distracting driving tragedy such as occurred last Wednesday in Texas.

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