Will a ban on hand’s free phones make driving safer?

The National Traffic Safety Board is very concerned about distracted driving. Their research and testimony was instrumental in shaping statutes in 35 states that ban texting while driving and the 9 states that ban the use of handheld phones (many more states have partial restrictions). If you have ever tried using a tiny keyboard (for example, typing a destination into a GPS device) while gliding down a highway or even a side street, then you know it is very risky to say the least.

Studies on the effects of laws are often ambiguous, because so many extraneous variables are at play before and after the law goes into effect. But in the case of texting while driving, studies are conclusive. Applying this data, I am reasonably confident that at least 3 people reading this blog in the week it was posted are alive because of one of these laws.

When the NTSB first suggested that handheld use of cell phones should be banned, I was surprised at the specificity of their wrath. Don’t we already punish “Driving while distracted”? Keeping laws general seems so much simpler and fair. Why should a cell phone user be restricted but not the lady in the next lane applying mascara or the guy drinking coffee and shaving at the same time?

Perhaps one reason for a targeted restriction is because the technology is newer and more insipid. It takes a few years before most drivers recognize how dangerous it is to hold a portable device while driving. In my opinion, a phone is used in a very different manner than a cup of coffee. Doing those other things (applying makeup and shaving) is just plain stupid. These things require that your eyes and full attention be on the mirror and not the road.

Perhaps a ban on cell phones is palatable because it relieves traffic officers and courts from the vagaries of interpretation. Either way, I accept the restriction. I make a serious effort to ensure that an automatic hands free connection is established each time that I enter my car. I wasn’t truly happy with wireless speakerphones until I found a simple and effective Bluetooth speaker that recognized when I was inside the vehicle. The detection of an occupant is a major step forward, because it ensures that calls from home are not hijacked by the device in my parked car.

But now, the NTSB has gone too far. They are recommending a complete ban on the presence of mobile phones in cars. What’s next? Why not Prohibit drivers from talking with passengers? (Apparently, they believe that talking with a caller is more dangerous). Even if studies demonstrate a link between talking and safety, the research technique cannot possibly factor in the dramatically increased safety and reduced driving of those who keep in touch with business and loved ones, especially if the call pertains to their reason for driving in the first place.

Consider an example: Suppose that the research conclusively demonstrates that a call doubles the chance of a serious accident from 1 in 150,000 miles to 2 in 150,000 miles. What if the call removed the car from the road because the whole trip is unnecessary? Is that covered by the study? For example, suppose that you are rushing to the airport to pick up an elderly relative who is ill and forgot critical medicine. They don’t speak English and – well – you get the idea… You are under stress, speeding and very concerned about someone else’s safety. Anyone will acknowledge that the risk of an accident is heightened. You are aware of this, but you are good driver. You are not tired and you weigh the risk against your personal mission.

Now suppose that this relative called you from another airport. They missed their flight and they will not be arriving as expected. But wait! They ran into the family doctor at the airport. He has the required medicine and will even give Grandpa a lift home. I realize that the example is a bit contrived and melodramatic, but the gist is broadly applicable. Accepting the call in the car not only removes a source of stress, it makes the entire trip unnecessary. While not every call saves tires, gas, stress and lives—many calls make business and personal life more efficient. In turn, this reduces stress and the need to drive. The relationships between these things are intangible and difficult to measure, but the net effect is very tangible. It would be difficult to incorporate control mechanisms that relate to these factors and almost impossible to set controls and measure results. (How is overall traffic safety influenced by reducing the need to drive? The influence goes beyond the individual driver!) They are perhaps more important components of overall safety than all the things that can be measured.

Banning the use of all telephone communication in cars is not just foolish, it is political idiocy. Fortunately, I’m not the only one who thinks so. If you don’t agree with me after the very slightest of reflection then post a comment. But be prepared for my retort. In my opinion, anyone who disagrees with me just hasn’t thought enough about the issue! (Eventually, you will get it right!)

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Verizon Wireless: Trouble with honesty & fairness

In the market for mobile phones, a time span of 7 years represents a different era altogether. At least 4 generations of hardware feature phones have come and gone. Seven years ago, there was no iPhone and no Android. Palm was king of PDAs, a class that was still separate from phones and browsers. Feature phones offered Symbian at best. (Who remembers Windows CE?).

Way back in 2004, Verizon crippled Bluetooth in the Motorola v710, the first mobile phone to support short range wireless technology. The carrier supported Bluetooth for connecting a headset and for voice dialing, but they blocked Bluetooth from transferring photos and music between a phone and the user’s own PC. More alarmingly, they displayed a Bluetooth logo on the outside of custom Verizon packaging, even though the logo licensing stipulated that all logical and resident Bluetooth “profiles” are supported.

(Disclosure: I was a plaintiff in a class action that resulted in free phones for users affected by the deception. I am not a ‘Verizon basher’. I have been a faithful client since early cell phones and I recently defended Verizon’s right to charge for off-device tethering.)

Can you hear me now?

Why would Verizon cripple a popular feature that helps to differentiate and sell equipment? That’s an easy one. It forced users to transfer photos and music over the carrier network rather than exchange files directly with a PC. The carrier sells more minutes or costly data plans.

With the same motive, Verizon restricted feature phone apps to their Get it Now store, limiting music, games and ringtones to their own pipeline. Heck–Why not? It’s their ball park! Users can take their business to other carriers. Right? Well perhaps—but mobile service is built upon licensed spectrum, a regulated and limited commodity. Although carriers are not a monopoly in the strict sense (there are three or four carriers in populated regions), they are licensed stewards of an effective market duopoly.

Perhaps the longest lived vestige of Verizon’s stodgy funk (and the most depressing) was their insistence on stripping pre-smart phones of the manufacturer’s user GUI and foisting users to navigate a bland set of carrier-centric screens and commands. Often, I would sit next to someone on an international flight who had the same model Motorola, Samsung or Nokia phone. And guess what? His carrier didn’t interfere with fascinating user features. Why did Verizon force their own screens on unsuspecting Americans? It meant that I could not set my phone to vibrate first and then ring with increasing volume over the next few seconds. What a great feature on my Moto i810! But it was stripped from subsequent models, because it wasn’t spec’d by the boys in Verizon’s “retrofit and bastardize” lab.

With the exception of the class action on the Bluetooth features, no legislation was needed to get Verizon to unlock phone features. Eventually a free market mechanism forced them to rethink their ivory tower greed. With AT&Ts market success selling iPhones, Verizon eventually capitulated so that they could become the Android market leader. The new strategy worked for both consumers and for Verizon. Even before they began selling iPhones in 2011, Verizon reasserted their position as the carrier of choice and fully justified their cost premium through excellent coverage and quality service.

Hey, Verizon! Can you hear us now?!

But now, the company that I have learned to hate, love, and then curse, is at it again! They are about to introduce the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. It is only the 2nd Google branded Android (you can’t get closer to a pure Android experience!). But wait! News Flash: They are going to cripple a native Android feature. Just as with the Bluetooth debacle, Verizon claims that it is for the protection and safety of their own users. (Stop me, Mommy! I’m about to access a 3rd party service!).

Why doesn’t Verizon get it? Why can’t they see value in being the #1 carrier and base profit strategy on exceptional build out and service? Sure, I support their right to offer apps, music, ringtones, photo sharing, navigation, child tracking, mobile television, and even home control. These are great niches that can boost revenue. But remember that you are first and foremost a carrier. Just because you plan to enter one of these markets is no reason to cut off your own users from content and service options.

Think of this issue as your subscribers see it: Cutting off users from the Android wallet, because you plan to offer a payment mechanism of your own is no different than a phone service blocking calls to Bank of America because they are tied in with Citibank. If that metaphor doesn’t cut it, how about a simple truth? It’s been 22 years since Judge Harold Greene deregulated the telecommunications monopoly. Your company is both legacy and chief beneficiary of that landmark decision. But success is transient to those who use market penetration to restrict choice. And this time, it won’t require anti-monopoly legislation. The market will push back hard and share recovery will be slow.

I’m taking my phone and going home!

Android is open. Get it? You have flourished recently, because you chose to embrace an open system that builds on its own popularity. You have contributed to its swift ascent, and likewise, Google and your users who like Android have contributed to your success. Why spit on your users now? What did we do to deserve this?

C’mon Verizon. Stop seizing your ball and threatening to close the ball park. We love you. Get it right for once and stop dicking with us. Our patience is wearing thin!