LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE

How to keep young drivers' hands on the wheel

Larry P. Vellequette covers Chrysler Group for Automotive News
Other blogs

Distracted driving is a plague upon our highways -- an indiscriminate disease that can destroy the lives of those that do it and the innocent bystanders they hit.

My completely unscientific and entirely anecdotal observations have led me to conclude that an inverse relationship exists between a driver's age and the propensity to drive with a cell phone held to the ear. The younger the driver, the more likely he or she is to be talking on the phone.

So I'd like to offer up to the auto industry a potential low-cost tech solution -- gratis -- in the hopes of dissuading the least experienced drivers from willfully endangering their fellow motorists.

Here it is: Let's install pressure sensors on the steering wheel, between 2 and 5 o'clock on the right and 7 and 10 o'clock on the left. The sensors would tie into the vehicle's audio system.

When activated by the vehicle's owner, the vehicle's audio system would work only when both pressure sensors are engaged by both hands on the wheel while the vehicle is in motion. Three seconds after one of the pressure sensors disengages -- one or both of the driver's hands leave the wheel -- the audio system goes mute.

Three seconds is enough time to shift in a vehicle with a manual transmission or to sip a beverage and return it to a cupholder.

If the sensor is not re-engaged within another three seconds, the audio system begins emitting a corrective tone that increases in volume with each passing second until the second hand returns to the wheel. Ultimately, such a tone would make it impossible to talk on a cellular phone. Ten seconds after the reset to normal, the audio system would begin functioning normally again.

Sensor placement is important because if the whole steering wheel is sensored, adaptive teens could use a knee in place of a hand to defeat the system.

To be marketed as a safety feature, the system would have to have the ability to be switched on and off by the vehicle owner, perhaps by entering a numeric code into the audio system. Ford's MyKey system already allows parents to control certain vehicle functions through a keyed reprogramming system. This would go a little farther.

I offer this idea up with a selfish motivation: My two kids are now preteens, and they'll be climbing behind the wheel soon enough. While I'm committed to training them to drive with both hands on the wheel when the time comes, I'd like a little help to make sure they do so.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. Or just steal this idea and bring it to market. Either way, the clock is ticking.

Go.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

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