President Obama Wednesday night signed an executive order stating that:
"Federal employees shall not engage in text messaging (a) when driving GOV [Government-owned, Government-leased, or Government-rented vehicles], or when driving POV [privately-owned vehicles] while on official Government business, or (b) when using electronic equipment supplied by the Government while driving."
This order follows on the heels of a directive a few weeks ago by US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairwoman Deborah Hersman ordering NTSB employees not to use their cell phones for any reasons while driving.
The Obama Administration doesn't go quite that far - at least yet. I think it will, once it realizes that this executive order tacitly implies that using a cell phone while driving is okay.
The executive order also directs each Federal agency to define within the next 90 days appropriate disciplinary actions for employees found to be texting while driving. In addition, the executive order directs that Federal agencies through procurement contracts, grants, and cooperative agreements,
"shall encourage contractors, subcontractors, and recipients and subrecipients to adopt and enforce policies that ban text messaging while driving company-owned or -rented vehicles or GOV, or while driving POV when on official Government business or when performing any work for or on behalf of the Government."
I wouldn't be at all surprised to see government contractors quickly lining up to comply with the no texting while driving ban.
US Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also strongly suggested that state and local governments to pass laws against distracted driving. He also said that the Obama administration will be seeking not only to ban text messaging by interstate and school bus drivers and truckers, but place further restrictions on cell phone use by those groups as well as rail operators.
In a related story earlier this week in the New York Times, the American Trucking Association expressed concern that the proposed bans on distracted driving would mean the removal of the on-board computers used by trucking companies to communicate with their drivers. Trucking companies have invested heavily in these systems to increase their operating efficiency.
Researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), the Times said, found that truckers who used on-board computers "faced a 10 times greater risk of crashing, nearly crashing or wandering from their lane than truckers who did not use those devices."
In fact, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) study, as I noted here, indicates that text messaging while driving a truck makes the risk of a crash or near crash event 23.2 times higher than that when not texting.
What I haven't seen is much discussion, other than a short article here at the Times which says using cell phones by cabbies and limo drivers was made illegal in New York City ten years ago, of distracted driving and taxi cab drivers. Many taxi companies have similar types of dispatch systems as those found in trucks in their taxi fleets, and my personal experience is that many, many taxi drivers are talking on their cell phones to their dispatchers or to their friends while driving me to my destination.
As the Times article on taxi cab driving and cell phone use notes, even though the practice has been banned for a decade in New York City, doing both at the same time still widely persists. It will be interesting to see whether the Obama Administration's executive order will do much to curb the practice of Federal workers and contractors texting while driving.
I will be especially interested in seeing exactly what are the "appropriate disciplinary actions" that will be taken by Federal government agencies against their employees caught violating the executive order as well. These will show just how serious the Obama Administration views this activity, and whether this concern is for real or just a nice, feel-good publicity stunt.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.