The Beltway
An occasional column by Gabe Nelson, Automotive News' D.C. correspondent, analyzing the auto industry's relationship with Washington.
GABE NELSON

Can laws stop distracted driving if we won't?

COMMENTARY
Gabe Nelson is a reporter for Automotive News and is based in Washington, D.C.
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WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jay Rockefeller has reason to be frustrated.

Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is supposed to be making sure that federal laws keep the roads safe. Yet Americans keep getting killed -- thousands of them every year -- because they won't stop looking down from the road to check text messages and play with the high-tech gizmos built into cars.

The pattern is tragic and preventable, and it's the sort of problem that drives Washington's civil servants into fits of frustration.

So this month, Rockefeller hauled business executives up to Capitol Hill to issue a warning: Do a better job of curbing distracted driving, or Congress will act.

"Know me to be very unhappy, to be very nervous," Rockefeller told the assembled executives from General Motors, Toyota, Apple, Google, AT&T and Verizon as he critiqued them for profiting from technology that distracts drivers. "Not just about deaths, but about close-to-death injuries -- all for the sake of outdoing each other and making more money."

Rockefeller, a 76-year-old Democrat from West Virginia, probably will be unable to change the law before he retires from Congress this year. But he has a point. Americans, especially younger Americans, have become consumed with electronic gadgets that when used irresponsibly make driving more dangerous.

However, he should bear in mind the saying that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Washington's hammer is laws and regulations. But distracted driving isn't a nail.

People know that distracted driv-ing is wrong. In many places, it is also illegal to talk or text without a hands-free device. They do it anyway. Changing the law is simple compared with changing people's habits.

Just look at drunken driving. This country has strong laws to stop it. DUI infractions come with steep penalties, to say nothing of the legal fees. Yet people still drive drunk. They kill about 10,000 Americans a year.

Seat belts are a similar story. Automakers must design cars to beep discouragingly if the front seat belts are unbuckled. Police write tickets. Yet a sizable chunk of American drivers, somewhere around 10 percent, still do not use them.

If it wanted to, Congress could withhold federal highway dollars from states that refuse to crack down hard on distracted driving, just as it once sanctioned states that didn't increase the drinking age from 18 to 21.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has already put out guidelines on distraction, but it could move into mandate mode and order automakers to stop putting distracting technology into cars.

Those steps might make people in Washington feel a sense of accomplishment, but they wouldn't address the root of the problem: societal norms that are getting worse, not better.

Compliance with seat-belt and drunken-driving laws is on the rise, mainly because younger generations have grown up sensitive to those problems. Yet distracted driv-ing is going the opposite direction. Every year, cars are increasingly being piloted by younger people who are willing to look down briefly to read text messages while driving.

That tendency will not fade away without a keen focus on a societal addiction to connectedness that is growing stronger every year.

Rockefeller must know this. While speaking to the executives, he recounted a story of a speech he gave to an audience that included some of his own relatives. At one point, when he looked out to the crowd, he saw them not listening intently but rather looking down, their faces lit up by their cellphones.

People don't need cars to be distracted.

So when Washington feels the temptation to take aim at Detroit, it should remember: Society, not big business, has made this happen. And if you try to change society by punishing business, you're bound to miss your target.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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