Steering cell phones in the right direction

Steering his Range Rover, Brian Bogosian has a message for politicians and safety advocates who want to stop drivers from talking on cell phones: Don't tell me what to do.

Steering his Range Rover from San Francisco to Mountain View, Calif, Brian Bogosian has a message for politicians and safety advocates who want to stop drivers from talking on cell phones: Don't tell me what to do.

The chief executive of mobile access company Visto is irked by mounting political pressure to ban the use of wireless devices in automobiles. Every morning, Bogosian uses his Range Rover as an office on wheels to call colleagues on the East Coast--while petting the muzzle of Cobey, his faithful Vizsla who commands the front passenger seat.

"This whole driver distraction issue is overblown," said Bogosian, whose Mountain View-based company makes software that lets personal computers transmit calendar, address book and email entries from corporate networks to wireless devices.

"People have been distracted for years, whether smoking cigarettes or playing with the equalizer on the radio," he said. "To get government in your car with you is one step from having them in the bedroom with you."

Although Bogosian's 150-person start-up can't afford to send a lobbyist to Washington, DC or Sacramento, Calif, consumers and business executives from Silicon Valley to Detroit are echoing his concerns. Politicians' and safety advocates' calls to ban mobile devices from vehicles have gained traction, but an increasingly vocal group is questioning the logic. The results could have dramatic effects for the converging technology and automobile industries.

The battle could change the way cell phones--and even handheld computers, wireless pagers and laptops--look and feel. Instead of traditional handheld devices with touch pads and screens, they may eventually become integrated into vehicle dashboards and controlled exclusively through voice-activated technology or touch controls.

A cell phone ban could also have big consequences for companies that issue cell phones to their employees--a common perk at technology and financial companies that demand round-the-clock access to workers.

In 1999, a motorcyclist died after a Smith Barney broker hit him while talking on his cell phone at the time of the accident. Although the firm did not supply the phone, lawyers alleged that Smith Barney encouraged workers to use personal phones for business. Smith Barney settled the case for US$500,000. A cell phone ban could greatly raise the stakes for companies, changing the popular perk into a lethal liability.

But critics say such a situation would be little more than an over-dramatized, under-researched response to the cell phone debate. At the very least, they say, scientists should conduct more research into driver distractions before legislatures pass laws banning cell phones.

They say states such as New York, which last week banned the use of handheld phones in cars, are enacting severe rules that aren't grounded in statistical evidence.

"The problem now is there's a lot of interest but not a lot of data," said Jeff Greenberg, chief of Ford's Virtual Test Track Experiment (Virttex) in Dearborn, Mich. Virttex is the first automotive lab to feature a full-scale, moving-base driving simulator that tracks drivers' eye movements while using onboard gadgets and trying to maneuver curves on simulated highways. Ford plans to release test results later this year.

"The issue for companies like Ford is to get the data required to set standards," Greenberg said. "The legislatures are going to make whatever political decisions they'll make, but it's a separate issue from research. We're conducting research in a scientific process. It takes time."

Although they're beginning to get out their message, there's no question the anti-cell phone campaigners have gotten a head start in terms of publicity. Last week, New York became the first state to pass legislation banning people from talking on handheld cell phones while driving. Gov George Pataki is expected to make the law effective Nov 1.

The US Congress is also considering a bill that would curtail cell phone use while driving, requiring people to dial, talk and listen via voice-activated, hands-free devices and headsets. Forty states have also considered similar limits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Although no scientist has produced a definitive white paper or research report on the correlation between wireless devices and crashes, safety advocates have some statistics to back up their claims. Some of the most active research in the field has been conducted outside of the United States.

A 1997 survey by Japan's National Police Agency survey found that drivers using cell phones caused 2,297 accidents, 25 fatalities and 3,000 injuries. Researchers there then analyzed 1,248 car-phone-related motor vehicle accidents in a six-month period between 1997 and 1998. Forty-three percent of drivers crashed when trying to receive a call; 22.9 percent crashed while dialing; and 16.7 percent crashed while talking. The remainder attributed their crashes to "other distractions."

A link between cell phones and accidents was reported as early as 1997 in the New England Journal of Medicine. Back then, Dr. Donald Redelmeier of the University of Toronto and Dr. Robert Tibshirani of Stanford University determined that talking on a cell phone while driving--even a hands-free phone--quadrupled the risk of being in an accident.

The pair surmised that keeping the driver's mind focused on the road is more important than keeping his or her hands on the wheel. They recently revisited their 1997 study for the Canadian Medical Association Journal, finding that they may have originally underestimated the risk. They suggested that cell phone bans for drivers might be justified.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatal Accident Reporting System, 10.3 percent of all fatal crashes in 1999 were caused by driver distractions. Distractions ranged from lighting cigarettes and eating hamburgers to applying makeup and even attempting to write memos.

The study showed a big increase in the number of electronics-related distractions as the number of Americans with handheld electronics devices mushroomed. But the survey didn't specifically ask people about emerging wireless devices such as pagers or handheld computers, and it's unknown how many accidents involved voice-activated devices or hands-free phones with headsets.

But an equal number of surveys suggest cell phones don't necessarily cause crashes--or, at least, they say it's impossible to determine whether it was the phone, the driver, the nature of a particular phone call or an external complicating factor such as a storm or stray animal in the road.

According to the American Automobile Association, wireless phones were not among the top five contributing factors in auto accidents. From the more than 32,000 accidents analyzed, wireless phones contributed to 1.5 percent of accidents, according to the AAA research published in May.

The most distracting was an outside object, person or event, which contributed to 29.4 percent of accidents analyzed. AAA also determined that cassette or CD players were more distracting than cell phones, resulting in 11.4 percent of accidents analyzed.

Distractions from another occupant in the vehicle, such as a chatty passenger or baby, contributed to 10.9 percent of accidents. Eating or drinking contributed to 1.7 percent, according to the AAA study.

US insurance agencies have not decided whether wireless devices pose a particular risk to consumers. Allstate, Progressive and virtually all other automobile insurance carriers avoid asking consumers whether they use devices in the car because they've not found a correlation between the devices and accidents. By contrast, many insurers provide a small discount to non-smokers; they reason that non-smokers won't be distracted by fumbling for or lighting cigarettes.

"One of the things about the whole distracted driving thing is that there are few statistics on it. We can't ask questions about it until we have more data," said Maureen Sullivan, spokesperson for Northbrook, Ill-based Allstate.

"We're working with trade associations to get more education in driver ed programs and public service announcements. But until there are stats and we can see the real impact of the cell phone, we're not going to make it an underwriting issue."

That's where Ford believes its Virttex research will come in. Ford will begin its pre-trial simulations in three weeks and begin collecting data in about six weeks. It will publicize the results in the fall.

One of the biggest issues that Virttex will examine is mental distraction. Detroit's automakers have speculated that hands-free cell phones don't necessarily help keep people on the road because mental focus is equally important as keeping hands on the wheel in avoiding accidents.

"If you're looking at your Palm Pilot while driving, it's a very bad idea. But let's say you're dictating into a voice-activated machine," Greenberg said. "You might be looking straight ahead, but we're not sure you're seeing and responding to important events as you should be."

Many advocates of wireless devices say that, until the issue is properly researched, the government should focus on educational campaigns instead of legislation banning devices. More than 114 million people have wireless service, 15 times as many as in 1991, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. Nearly one-quarter of all cell phone users talk while driving every day, according to a Gallup poll in April 2000.

To test the skills of this growing group, Ann Arbor, Mich-based interactive design development and consulting company Enlighten created an online driving simulation game for General Motors on a "Sensible Driving" site. Although no one is keeping tabs on the official results, Enlighten founder and CEO Steve Glauberman said most people crash when a baby screams or a cell phone rings.

"We're just creating awareness in a non-threatening, humorous way," Glauberman said. "If you ask people, they always think the other driver is dangerous when driving with a cell phone--but they say that they're not a threat. No one thinks they personally are a danger. In the end, we just want people to think twice when they pick up that cell phone."

The stakes for scientists conducting research are high. Results of the studies could determine whether technology companies have to develop hands-free, voice-activated gadgets specifically for the automobile--or whether they can continue developing traditional touch screens and dial pads. Most believe that NHTSA and other safety groups will adopt certain guidelines as standards that all automakers, technology companies and their suppliers are required to follow.

The auto industry has generally agreed that laptop-style computers pose significant dangers to drivers and others on the road because reading the screens is too distracting. GM goes so far as to enforce a rigid rule among product developers that if the dashboard has any screen visible to the driver, the screen must be disabled whenever the car is not in park or neutral.

Despite that, there is considerable debate among industry executives about whether onboard communications should be controlled primarily by voice, touch or modified sight--including heads-up displays that flash email or weather updates on the windshield in a see-through manner. There is absolutely no consensus on how to develop portable devices such as cell phones or wireless pagers for use in the automobile.

But for people like Bogosian, a wireless company executive who wouldn't think of driving without his cell phone, government intervention--even government-sponsored educational campaigns--seem vaguely insulting.

"People need to be reminded they need to be cautious. But to try to legislate that is ridiculous and makes no sense to me," Bogosian said. "It will probably be done in one of those liberal states, like Massachusetts, where I come from, where they think you need to be told how to live your life."