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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Telematics Designed to Eliminate Distracted Driving

Although they know they shouldn't, drivers succumb to the lure of operating their cell phones while simultaneously operating a vehicle.

Cell phones have become ubiquitous.  No longer is it good enough to have a cell phone; the thing is plastered to our faces all hours of the day and night, especially when we are driving.

Our culture now demands immediate connectivity, especially among the youth.  In business, the standard is instant availability around the clock.  This is how teenagers live their lives; this is how business gets done.

The problem arises when physics gets in the mix on the highways and byways of our nation.  People that multitask while driving, especially when manipulating the screen of a smart phone, are several times more likely to cause a high-impact collision even than, say, a drunk driver.

The Statistics.  81% of licensed drivers recently surveyed by the insurance industry lobby admitted to using their cell phones while operating a vehicle.  Consistent estimates developed in a series of studies since 1996 conclude that drivers using cell phones are four times more likely to cause a car crash.

According to estimates provided by the National Safety Council, published by the NYT, of the 5.6 million car crashes that occurred in 2012, as many as 1.48 million of those crashes -26%- involved  a cell phone based distraction.

The Technology.   Telematics is an interdisciplinary field at the intersection of telecommunication, vehicular technology, and computer science designed to control, measure and supply advanced function to vehicles on the move.  Recently, start-ups, insurance companies, and at least one mobile provider -Sprint- have invested in the development of technology that blocks the use of a driver's cell phone.

The cell phone manufacturing industry lobby, with the onset of "unlimited' data plans, have begun to shift their opposition to national and state safety regulations on the use of cell phones by car drivers.  Now, Sprint has taken the lead to develop the technology designed to take the choice out of drivers' hands; if you are driving, you cell phone becomes inoperable.

At the forefront of this developing technology comes an American start-up company -Katasi- that has designed a small black box  -about the six of a matchbox- affixed to the steering column of a vehicle that prevents the driver's cell phone from receiving or sending calls or messages.  Apparently, the telematic design of this device allows passengers to continue to operate their phones, while only the driver's cell is disabled.

The problem, however, is that at five years in, the company is no longer a "start-up", and its product still sits on the sidelines because the technology has not been adopted by the big boys: the insurance industry and the cell phone carriers.

Legal Liability.  One of the factors that has operated to limit the adoption of this technology is the concern for legal liability.  Companies are worried that if one stray text breaks through, and the driver causes a crash, the manufacturer will be on the hook for unknown millions.

While legal experts -mostly law professors and not product liability lawyers- conclude such concerns are overblown given the "do-good" nature of the device, the technology has yet to go on-line with a serious manufacturer.

If it becomes an industry standard, i.e. affixed to every car sold in the United States, the revenue plan is that drivers will have to pay approximately $5 per month to keep the device activated.  Law will need to come into play before that happens.

We here at the Law Blogger ask: if the technology is present, can those laws compelling vehicular integration of the device be too far away?  We certainly hope not, given the statistics cited above.

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