☆ Mandel likely the first of many to get it wrong / by Damon Lavrinc

On hearing the NTSB’s recommendation to ban drivers from using electronic devices, Dutch Mandel of Autoweek kicks off what’s sure to be the first in a flurry of misguided editorials:

Is it possible to canonize a member of the federal government for coming out on the correct side of what is good and right?

That’s how I feel following news on Dec. 13 that Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, came out loud and proud recommending a ban on driver use of portable electronic devices. Yep, she wants to do away with mobile phones and smartphones so drivers can’t talk and drive or text and drive.

Hallelujah! There is sanity in Washington, D.C.

Naturally, Mandel – and I predict the rest of the soon-to-be editorialists – gets it wrong. First, this doesn’t just apply to mobile phones with voice and text capabilities: it applies to every electronic device in the vehicle. The wording of the recommendation is so broad that it stands to include any and all personal electronics and could extend to infotainment, navigation and other connected devices. 

To Mandel’s credit, he’s been a huge supporter of advanced and continuing driver education for years. It’s one of the few things he and I agree on, and he even went so far as to highlight one of my mentors – the late Gordon Booth of Drivetrain – in Autoweek nearly a decade ago. But any mention of driver responsibility or adapting technology for in-car use is completely missing from his hastily-penned editorial. Yes, distracted driving is an issue. Yes, there needs to be a thoughtful, enforceable set of guidelines to prevent certain communications behind the wheel. But what the NTSB is recommending is too broad, too vague and too ambitious to be feasible. And as everyone with half a mind has already pointed out, the group can’t pass laws; it can only recommend action.

Mandel goes on to cite Hersman’s supposed bonafides, from a commercial driver’s license to a basic motorcycle training course and hazardous waste response training. That’s all well and good, but where’s the psychology degree? The masters in UI design? How about any driver training safety experience beyond enacting commercial, railway and pipeline guidelines for the feds? None of it exists as far as I can tell.

That’s not to say that Hersman isn’t qualified for something, but it isn’t driver safety in the 21st century.

The boom in smartphone use still isn’t understood on any meaningful level, including its affect on drivers. The oft-cited 10% of road fatalities attributable to driver distraction isn’t broken down into individual causes. That means it could be anything from eating to drinking to pacifying an infant. 

So until we’ve got some real stats and some hard evidence, let’s avoid the hyperbole and premature canonization. And no, “St. Debbie” doesn’t have a nice ring to it. This isn’t a religious war, no matter how hot and bothered the old guard gets.