I'm not a fan of technology-forcing regulation. It can harm as much as help. It tends to ignore the possibility of unintended consequences, such as increased crash deaths in lighter, more fuel-efficient cars. But my biggest objection is that such regulation often is influenced more by politics and campaign contributions than it is by science and common sense.
But not being a fan isn't the same as being an enemy. Clearly, many rules are needed, especially rules governing driver behavior. Take the matter of hand-held cell phones.
They are a traffic nuisance.
It's still hard to prove how much of a problem such phones are by citing traffic accident or crash fatality numbers. Different police jurisdictions have different ways of reporting such things; and, let's face it, people lie.
"No, officer, I wasn't using the phone." Yeah, right.
But eyes don't lie. Accumulated experiences don't lie. Many people who regularly drive in urban or high-density metropolitan traffic have seen motorists veering into the wrong lanes, or struggling to stay in the correct lane, while engaged in animated conversation over a hand-held cell phone.
I've done stupid things like that. Perhaps, you have, too.
It's no wonder, then, that legislators in New York and elsewhere are calling for an end to this dangerous practice. New York has passed a law banning the use of hand-held phones while driving. Other states are sure to follow. That's good.
It's good for auto safety. It's also good for the auto industry and the burgeoning telematics business.
Telematics? That's just a fancy term for in-vehicle communications systems and supporting equipment and components. It includes telephone, mobile fax and e-mail, navigation systems, Internet services, almost anything you can imagine involving the electronic transmission of voice, data and images.
For years, automakers and their suppliers have been trying to figure out how to boost sales of such devices without increasing mayhem on the roads. They've marketed hands-free phones with limited success, primarily because such phones were suitable for use only in the vehicle in which they were installed.
Consumers wanted more portability -- the ability, for example, to use the same cell phone as a hands-free device in a car and a hand-held device away from the car. Also, they've asked for phones that can moved from one vehicle to another with minimum hassle.
Thanks largely to the legislative push to outlaw hand-helds behind the wheel, that hands-free phone technology is emerging rapidly.
For example, Ford Motor Co. this fall will begin selling phone docking stations designed by Cellport Systems Inc., a Colorado company largely funded by AT&T Wireless Systems, Cisco Systems Inc. and Omron Corp. of Japan.
The Cellport system allows a variety of hand-held cell phones to be used hands-free. The user gives a voice command, such as "Call home." The appropriate number is dialed electronically. Conversation is conducted through the vehicle's audio system.
Ford will begin selling the Cellport system in its 2002 Windstar minivan, as well as in its 2002 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable sedans.
Depending on customer demand, the Cellport system -- about $250 for the docking station, plus an estimated installment fee of $75 to $150 -- eventually could wind up in most Ford products.
That means, more than likely, similar systems will find their way into vehicles manufactured by Ford's rivals. Nissan Motor Co., for example, already installs voice-activated phones.
Eventually, talking on a phone in a car could prove no more harmful than having an in-vehicle conversation with your spouse, or children. Hmmmm. Maybe, we ought to think about that for awhile.
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