Traffic deaths have risen, as the U.S. Department of Transportation recently revealed, by 7.2 percent: the greatest increase in deaths in 50 years. And this, as a recent case in Texas exemplifies, is partly due to distracted driving.
Back in 2013, Ashley Kubiak crashed into another vehicle when she checked her phone for messages while driving, which resulted in 2 deaths and left a child paralyzed. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), distraction-affected fatalities in car crashes like this rose from 3,197 to 3,477 in 2015.
Many would argue that the driver should assume responsibility for causing accidents through phone use. But, while Kubiak was charged with negligent homicide, the families of the victims in this car crash have raised an interesting question. Could cell phone companies be to blame?
With Great Power Comes… Great Responsibility?
This question arose from a recent product liability lawsuit filed against Apple, claiming that Apple should take a share of the blame. The argument is that Apple is aware of the dangers of texting while driving, and did nothing to prevent Kubiak from doing so.
Legal experts do say, however, that making an iPhone responsible for an auto accident far-fetched. “If you think about it, then you would have manufacturers being responsible for all sorts of distractions,” said Gail Gottehrer, a technology litigation expert. “For example, all too often you drive past somebody who’s reading a book on the steering wheel. Does that mean that distraction is the source of an accident if it happens, so you would go back and sue the book publisher?”
But Apple may have some degree of accountability. The company holds a patent, filed in 2008, for a technology that can reduce phone functionality while traveling. When the phone’s sensors pick up movement at high speeds, the driver would be “locked out” of texting, for example. But this technology has not yet been deployed.
Likewise, Apple is developing a system called CarPlay, which integrates Siri with some cars and creates “hands-free” capabilities that Apple claims will “allow you to stay focused on the road.” And as well as phone manufacturers like Apple, service providers are also promoting apps that autoreply to incoming texts and calls, or are developing their own “driving modes.” Clearly, however, all these big ideas are easier said than done.
Why Are Fatal Car Crashes Rising Despite Available Technology?
If these solutions exist, and phone companies have openly recognized the problem, why have they not intervened? Of course, each of these technologies may have its drawbacks – experts say that the hands-free CarPlay would be just as distracting as hand-held activity, for example, and reducing a driver’s phone functionality may also shut off a passenger’s – but there may be more to it than that.
Deborah Hersman, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, makes the situation plain. “The technology exists – we just don’t have the stomach to implement it,” said Hersman, who is now the president of the National Safety Council. “Technology got us into this situation. Technology will get us out. However, we’re so afraid to tell people what they should do that you can kind of get away with murder under these conditions.”
But rather than simply having a fear of telling people what to do, phone companies could have a capitalistic interest in enabling phone use. David Teater, a road safety consultant, claims this is a question of competition. “If you’re at Apple or you’re at Samsung, do you want to be the first to block texting and driving?” he said. “A customer might say, ‘If Apple does it, then my next phone is a Samsung.’”
One must ask whether it’s enough for phone companies to warn against the risks of distracted driving, or offer options for blocking texts on the road; or whether they should produce a mandatory solution for prevention.
Distracted driving is a major problem, as is obvious from last year’s disturbing traffic crash and death statistics. And since some people don’t make wise decisions on the road because checking their phones is too hard to resist, perhaps this temptation should be taken away from them. “If Apple had deployed this technology 10 years ago,” Teater adds, posing the idea that Apple goes ahead with its patent, “there would be more people alive today.”