Keeping Hands OFF The Hands-FREE

Posted on February 10, 2010 by LCT Staff - Also by this author - About the author

As government agencies grub around with rules for mobile gadgets, one technology CEO in the know explains the stark safety difference between HAND-HELD and HANDS-FREE.

RESTON, VA — The growing use of electronic gadgets behind the wheel has spurred a legislative push nationwide to regulate how and when drivers use them, and soon could affect how chauffeurs driving luxury limousine vehicles are able to communicate behind the wheel.

The issue came to a head last month when the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission essentially banned the use of most electronic devices by for-hire drivers it licenses, including chauffeured transportation operators, in order to reduce the risk of accidents and protect public safety.

There appears to be near universal agreement among government regulators, transportation operators, and technology providers that hand-held uses of cell phones, e-mailing and texting, and use of keypads while driving are direct hazards to the traveling public and should be clearly prohibited. Studies show such uses cause a level of distraction and disorientation comparable to driving drunk and make motorists many times more likely to cause an accident. The TLC rules were a response to the constant use of cell phones among New York taxicab drivers that led to accidents, near misses, and complaints from the traveling public.

But the TLC rules, while well intended, also may have overreached, particularly when it comes to chauffeurs working for reservation-based chauffeured transportation operations who are a distinct breed from independent taxicab drivers constantly hustling for rides on city streets. With the exception of dashboard mounted voice-dispatch devices, the TLC rules also now prohibit the use of strictly hands-free, voice-activated communication tools, such as Bluetooth headsets, that do not require a driver to take the eyes off the road or the hands off the wheel.

The challenge for the National Limousine Association, as it determined during its Jan. 24 quarterly board of directors meeting, is to ensure that any federal Congressional legislation regulating use of cell phones exempts the hands-free, voice-activated equipment that chauffeurs rely on to communicate. The NLA, the leading voice of the chauffeured transportation industry in the U.S., believes a clear legislative distinction between MANUAL and HANDS-FREE is critical to not only ensuring safety but maintaining the smooth operation of fleet-based commerce.

Now, a leading study from Virginia Tech on distracted driving shows that hands-free, voice devices are substantially less risky than manual use of electronic equipment. The Virginia Tech Study states that “true hands-free phone use, such as voice activated systems, are less risky if they are designed well enough so the driver does not have to take their eyes off the road often or for long periods.”

The study has helped inform the product development of ZOOMSAFER, a maker of software that its CEO says automatically detects when a driver is driving and then puts a cell phone into safe drive mode, eliminating the ability to text and e-mail by freezing the keypad and screen. The software seamlessly switches to voice-activation, allowing drivers to accept hands-free calls from customers and dispatch even though the phone is in safe drive mode. The software also can transfer to Bluetooth in those vehicles that have it and automatically put a call on a speaker phone if a driver doesn’t have it.

ZoomSafer CEO Matt Howard cites numbers from the study showing that along the entire spectrum of distracted driving behavior, texting and e-mailing is the worst, with a driver who texts and/or e-mails 23 TIMES more likely to be in an accident than a non-distracted driver. A driver who dials a phone is 5.5 TIMES more likely to be in an accident than a non-distracted driver, while someone using a voice-activated, hands-free device is only 1.5 TIMES more likely to be in an accident.

“Relatively speaking, my view of the data, cognitive distraction, and hands-free device usage is that it perhaps introduces a distraction into the driving experience, but at the same time, as a modern member of society, as a person who values mobile productivity, running my business and my life, I’d rather have the opportunity to do things that are safer, legal, and productive,” said Howard, also the founder of Reston, Va.-based ZoomSafer.

Safety groups err on the side of the absolute, Howard said, insisting that electronic equipment is always distracting, should never be used, and essentially be locked in the trunk. That is unrealistic, particularly for fleet-based drivers, he said.

“Yes, there is a plausible argument that [hands-free is] not as safe as the alternative, but there is a very strong argument to be made that hands-free is the safest way to use phone while driving, short of not using it at all,” Howard said.

“I don’t know of a single study that goes so far as to say that hands-free equals driving drunk,” Howard said. “Typing, dialing, taking your hands off the wheel —those are where you start to see levels of impairment typically present in persons under the influence of alcohol.”

As to the question of the distraction involved conducting a voice-activated, hands-free phone conversation versus talking to someone inside a vehicle, Howard pointed out there is the element of “context” and some “real subtleties.”

“I have read research that clearly argues that it’s not the same,” Howard said. “Whether I believe that, there is room for debate. The argument is that if you are talking and having an emotional conversation [on the phone], the other person is not there, and they have no context for your physical circumstances, such as [if you are] driving by a tractor-trailer at 65 mph while it’s starting to snow. That lack of context tends to authenticate conversations in a way that is distracting.”

A driver having a stressful conversation with someone in the vehicle, however, is at lower risk of an accident because the passenger can “essentially parse the circumstances and moderate the conversation and distraction, and serve as an extra set of eyes,” Howard said.

ZoomSafer is aiming toward two distinct markets with its product, which has been in beta-test mode since September 2009 and officially launched to the commercial market during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.

The first market is a consumer one, mostly the parents of teen-agers about to come onto a family’s insurance policy who want peace of mind and savings on insurance rates; the second market is corporate/commercial, namely companies with fleets and/or traveling salespeople that want to minimize and manage their on-the-road risk and liabilities.

So far, the ZoomSafer products are being tested by a construction company, a municipality, a large charter and tour bus company, and a limousine and sedan operator on the East Coast, Howard said.

“With our software on a device, a motorist will be safe and legal and productive,” he said. “ZoomSafer is immune to their indifference and ignorance.”

— Martin Romjue, LCT Magazine

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