Just after noon on March 29, a pickup truck crossed the center line of a rural road in South Texas and slammed into a church bus, killing 13 members of the First Baptist Church of New Braunfels. A police report said the 20-year-old pickup driver, who survived, had taken medication and was texting. In other words, he was on two drugs, not one.
It was a particularly gruesome toll for a single crash, but in recent years thousands have died on the nation’s highways, mostly in ones and twos, as a result of drivers fiddling with their phones. Despite more crashworthy vehicles, in 2016 U.S. traffic deaths reached 40,000, the highest number in years, according to an estimate by the National Safety Council. Distraction from wireless devices is widely suspected to be a factor.
Smartphones are portals to the internet and consciously designed to seize the user’s attention. For some drivers, the ping of an incoming message is as irresistible as an open bag of potato chips on the passenger seat. The warning not to dial and text now seems quaint because drivers in large numbers are doing so much more: Reading and sending emails, viewing photos and videos, playing games, browsing social media and surfing the internet.
The main countermeasures–campaigns exhorting drivers to stay focused and ticketing violators of state bans on texting and hand-held use of phones–have had limited effect. Apps that can block electronic notifications, such as AT&T’s DriveMode, are voluntary and easy for drivers to bypass or ignore. Safety advocates want wireless companies to put the genie back in the bottle, or at least on a leash, when people are driving, by automatically blocking electronic distractions.
Now the industry is lobbying the Trump administration to kill proposed federal guidelines aimed at limiting distraction from smartphones and other portable devices. The nonbinding guidelines, issued in draft form in December by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), call on industry players to collaborate on technology that would disable distracting features of drivers’ phones without blocking devices of passengers. Like other safety and health initiatives advanced in the waning months of the Obama administration, the guidelines could be scrapped.