Last week, the New York Times reported that several automakers are beginning to equip cars with access to the Internet. It seems beyond question that, despite the warnings on the products themselves, these features will be used by drivers while they are driving and will inevitably lead to serious injuries and deaths. Car manufacturers installing these features deserve censure for choosing sales over lives.
Ford and Audi, aided by technology companies Google and Intel, are including “infotainment systems” in some of their 2010 models. These features are being touted for their ability to allow drivers to look up restaurant reviews, local attractions, or other “useful” information while they drive. The automakers insist that they have tested the products to minimize the time that drivers look away from the road while using them, and they defend their decision to install the products as satisfying growing customer demand.
According to research on distraction and auto safety, the risk of accident increases exponentially the longer a driver looks away from the road. Compared to the distraction of cell phones, which were estimated to cause 2,600 deaths per year in 2003, using the Internet on the road will lead to longer periods of driver distraction and significantly higher rates of accidents and corresponding fatalities.
This consequence is not an acceptable trade-off for the ability to read Yelp reviews while driving. Imagine telling the orphaned children of parents killed because of another driver’s distraction that their immeasurable suffering is an acceptable price to pay for a frivolous benefit. The immorality of choosing the marginal profits that adding such pointless features will bring over the safety of drivers and pedestrians is beyond question.
Given the improbability of persuading automakers to back down from the introduction of these life-destroying technologies, the public must look to government intervention. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has already warned that he will speak out against loading up cars with distractions, but this is not enough. California and many other states have recently enacted laws making it illegal to read or send text messages while driving. It should likewise be illegal to use the Internet via a cellphone, or any other device, while driving. However, since drivers tend to ignore these laws, federal regulators and lawmakers should take the opportunity to cut off the problem before it starts by making sure that no vehicles will ever be built with features allowing drivers to access the Internet while their cars are in motion. These products themselves should be banned. States and the federal government need to act now to protect the public instead of waiting for the foreseeable consequences of short-sighted decisions by greedy car manufacturers.