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Mobile technology ban could hinder fleet efficiency movement

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The National Transportation Safety Board's broad recommendation on mobile phone safety would require all portable electronics devices to be turned off completely when behind the wheel.

I've been stewing on this question or more than a week now, ever since the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) came out with its proclamation on Dec. 13 suggesting a ban on driver use of portable electronic devices behind the wheel: What effect would such a ban have on the fledging fleet management and driver efficiency efforts being supported by hundreds of U.S. companies?

The proposal, announced in this press statement, calls on all 50 states (and the District of Columbia) to explicitly prohibit any nonemergency use of ANY technology during driving with the exception of "those designed to support the driving task. The statement reads:

"The safety recommendation also urges use of the [National Highway Transportation Safety Administration] model of high-visibility enforcement to support these bans and implementation of targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new law and heightened enforcement."

The NTSB bases its recommendation on the very real dangers of "distracted driving," which it mainly describes as texting or making calls from a mobile phone from behind the wheel. There are thousands of documented deaths directly related to distracted driving in the report it uses as the basis for its proclamation.

"According to NHTSA, more than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents," said Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman in the statement. "It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving."

Notice what she said: turn off electronic devices. As in completely.

Fundamentally speaking, many Americas support a ban on mobile technology usage behind the wheel. A new poll out from Poll Position this week reports that 49 percent of Americans support the NTSB recommendation; the elderly were most likely to support the ban, with 60 percent in favor. Personally speaking, I feel like turning off a phone while behind the wheel is a good idea if you don't have an earpiece or hands-free option. If you can be hands-free, what right does the government have to tell me not to have a conversation while driving? Does that mean I also have to stop talking to the passengers in my car?

So here is what I am wondering. If this movement picks up momentum, what sort of impact will it have on telematics and mobile technologies being deployed by all sorts of companies interested in driving better fleet efficiency -- most notably the delivery and logistics companies such as UPS, FedEx and those with big service fleets such as AT&T. Does it mean that certain technologies will need to be turned off while the vehicle is moving (perhaps this can be automated)? Does it meant the UPS delivery driver will need to turn on and off that mobile gadget I use to sign for packages every time he or she gets in and out of the vehicle? Does it meant that global positioning satellite (GPS) systems must be voice-only, no visual that might distract me?

Mind you, it's not like there aren't already laws regulating the use of mobile phones while driving. In fact, 38 states have already put something on their books. But the NTSB's recommendation is pretty broad and pretty nebulous, which could mean challenges for high-profile fleet efficiency technology deployments. Indeed, the agency has gone on the record as saying it would look more closely at built-in telematics and communications technologies starting in 2012.

Matt Howard, CEO of ZoomSafer, a company that develops software that can monitor when fleet drivers are driving and ensure that their phones are off, commented on the recommendation:

“There’s considerable research showing that state laws restricting driver cell phone use are difficult and expensive to effectively enforce. This new NTSB recommendation recognizes that distracted driving is a complex and dangerous behavioral problem and appropriately highlights the important role that technology can play in terms of affordable and effective enforcement.”

Mind you, I'm very well aware of the distracted driving dangers, but would a blanket ban have the effect of curtailing some of the fleet investments that are helping U.S. companies become way more efficient? It certainly should prompt a lot of soul-searching.

Image: Courtesy of Stock.xchng

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure