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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: April 2, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

    Hang ups about hanging up

    Neil Briscoe


    Chapel Hill in North Carolina, USA, is not the sort of place that hits international headlines very much. It’s home to the respected University of North Carolina and the town’s Morehead planetarium was used in the sixties to train Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts in celestial navigation.

    But now, Chapel Hill is in the headlines, big time, because you can’t use your mobile phone when behind the wheel. At all. Not even on a hands free. Well, almost.

    The ban on in-car phone usage is due to come into force on June 1st, and at first, there are a few loopholes. For a start, the fine for transgression is a mere $25 and the law does allow you to make calls to a spouse, parent or child. (Which sounds like a heck of a loophole as I reckon about 90% of the calls I make and receive in the car are from or to my wife). Nonetheless, the move has been praised by the National Safety Council (NSC) (a US not-for-profit organisation that seeks to promote safety in the workplace, car and at home): “In passing a total ban, Chapel Hill has taken a significant step toward making their roads safer,” said Janet Froetscher, president and CEO at NSC. “Research shows hand-free devices offer drivers no safety benefit. Passing total cell phone bans – that include handheld and hands-free use – makes our roads safer. We praise Chapel Hill for this action. It will save lives.”

    It won’t stop at Chapel Hill. It’s the first official act of US-based groundswell that is looking to ban any in-car device that takes your attention away from the road for more than two seconds.

    This isn’t some crazy, minor-political-party wheeze either. This charge is being led by federal agencies, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB’s chair person has said that “According to NHTSA, more than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents. It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving. No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life.”

    US Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood, whose decision it would ultimately be to enact nationwide legislation to ban using your phone in the car, has so far declined to endorse the NTSB’s call to action. Having said that, Mr La Hood has been prominent in the news in recent years calling for fewer distractions when behind the wheel. And following recent high-profile accidents in Missouri and Kentucky, which were blamed on drivers being distracted by phones, the calls for a ban aren’t going to go away.

    Any in-car distraction, from a music player to a sat-nav, could be on the hitlist. The NHTSA’s recommendation is that no function in the car should distract the driver from the road for more than two seconds. Sat-nav in particular is being picked out as the next on the chopping block, with the NHTSA saying that it should only be possible to input new destinations or settings into the sat-nav when the car is at a standstill. Some built-in systems, such as those used by Lexus, already incorporate such a safety feature, but most others don’t, and none of the aftermarket sat-navs do.
    So, given that Europe tends to follow where the US leads in terms of motoring legislation (emissions control, catalytic convertors, unleaded petrol, airbags, high centre brake lights, the list goes on), are we going to see similar legislation proposed or introduced here?

    Well, while it would not be beyond the bounds of likelihood that an individual politician or their party could instigate legislation or debate, whether out of genuine concern or simply to get their faces in the paper, it seems that we are taking a much more sensible tack on this side of the Atlantic.

    Michel Van Ratingen, Secretary General of the European New Car Assessment Programme (EuroNCAP, the crash safety experts) told us that “EuroNCAP is luckily not in the business of banning anything. Consumers must be aware that there is risk associated to doing things that require you to shift your attention away from the road, whether that is calling on the phone, texting, using on-board entertainment, attending to the kids in the rear, etc.

    “In our view, raising awareness and education are more appropriate policies than banning behaviour that may not be enforceable, or implementing intrusive laws. If such countermeasures are really needed, they should be based on solid real world studies that provide evidence that the countermeasures deliver the improved safety expected, including the possible negative side effects.”

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