Block cellphone signals in cars to prevent distracted driving, researchers say

It’s an extreme idea. To reduce the growing distracted driving death toll, automatically disable cellphones in moving vehicles.

Researchers publishing in the Journal of the American Medical Association are proposing that cars and trucks should be engineered so that any hand-held device is rendered inoperable when the vehicle is in motion.

“Automobile and cell phone equipment manufacturers have the engineering capabilities to implement these safeguards, and they should be required to do so,” said Dr. Jeffrey Coben, the Director of the Injury Control Research Center at West Virginia University.

It’s a surprising conclusion. Previous studies on driver cellphone use did not even advocate for the practice to be legally banned. But cellphone use has grown exponentially in the last 10 years, and there is much more data on the number of auto accidents and fatalities caused by distracted driving. These factors led to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) calling for a full national ban on using mobile devices while driving.

The study authors suggest that a law alone is not sufficient. It can be very difficult for police officers to see what drivers are doing inside their cars, and some have suggested that accidents are actually more likely when people try to hide their phone use.

So is it remotely practical to attempt to block cellphone signals in cars? Among other objections, I expect there would be questions regarding passenger and emergency use, the cost of implementation, the variance between new and old cars, and last but not least, the necessity of such a drastic practice.

Researchers’ conclusions do not always lead to good policy – but good policy often comes from strong research. See details on the study in the Los Angeles Times, or on the JAMA website.