Hot Button Issues: Motor Vehicles and Personal Technology

by Tracy Swinburn on January 4, 2013

The School of Public Health (SPH) recently published a feature in Findings magazine on ‘hot button issues’ with perspectives from the SPH community.  Several Risk Science Center members and collaborators were featured, and we are grateful to Findings for allowing us to re-post these articles as a six-part series in Risk Sense.

Peter Jacobson on Motor Vehicles and Personal Technology:

The Issue: Despite the risks posed from cell-phone use and texting inside cars and trucks, auto manufacturers have begun installing and marketing the use of touchscreen computers on automobile dashboards. At least 18 percent of all reported injury crashes in the U.S. in 2010 involved distracted driving, so the question now is whether the escalation of personal technologies inside motor vehicles will lead to a corresponding escalation of injuries. If so, what should the federal and/or state governments do to keep the public safe?

The Debate: The federal government has issued regulations on trucks, and legislators in many states have considered laws to restrict the use of cell phones and other personal technologies. But auto manufacturers are not being challenged on their decisions regarding personal computing technologies. Aside from limits on texting and hand-held cell phones in some states, regulators at the federal and state level are not aggressively pursuing restrictions on personal technology use inside cars and trucks.

A Way Forward: We need a much broader discussion about the availability and use of personal computing technologies inside motor vehicles—and about the responsibility of auto manufacturers and the role of state and federal governments. States could consider legislation to ban the use of touchscreen computers on state roads and highways. In addition to supporting such laws, public health professionals should develop the same kind of campaigns they used so successfully to advocate for seatbelt use and designated driving.

Auto insurers can begin offering lower rates to drivers who adopt restrictions on technology use. Both the U.S. Department of Transportation and state DOTs should mount vigorous campaigns to heighten public awareness of the dangers of personal technology use while driving. Auto manufacturers need to think seriously about what they’re putting inside motor vehicles and why, and should work to develop new safety features to help offset the risks posed by new technologies.

Peter D. Jacobson, Professor of Health Law and Policy, U-M SPH Department of Health Management and Policy; Director, U-M Center for Law, Ethics, and Health; President, Public Health Law Association

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Maier January 4, 2013 at 11:42 am

Peter is correct that manufacturers must think long and hard about what they put in motor vehicles, and they must think about the liability risk it imposes on their business. In that context, technology must be the solution to its own problems. It does not appear necessary to install tactile controlled (e.g., touch-screen) electronic devices in cars. The technology exists now to make all of these new devices and systems operate by voice control.

Negligence is a legal concept that operates without a specific ban. Bans don’t work and are impossible to enforce. Insurance companies need to charge appropriate premiums to negligent policy holders and not spread the cost to low risk insured. People who do not have insurance should face criminal penalties commensurate with insurance fraud penalties…. it is insurance fraud, why don’t we treat it as such?

Education of course.


Peter Jacobson January 5, 2013 at 11:49 am

Thanks for your comment. While voice control is certainly better, the evidence suggests that accident rates from using handheld phones relative to voice only phones are about the same. Having access to texting, email, etc., while driving is problematic regardless of whether the instrumentality is touch-screen or voice control. It’s the distraction from driving that concerns me.

I agree that negligence operates without a ban, but a negligence lawsuit follows the injury. We need to prevent the injury from occurring. I agree that enforcing a ban could be difficult, but we ought to enact bans and then evaluate their effectiveness. But I like your idea about raising insurance premiums for those who use the technology while driving.


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