Death by distraction: New tech toys can endanger public and warfighters

Those gadgets might be good enough for government work, but please, keep your eyes on the road

The world of mobile technology is moving fast — maybe too fast for government policy-makers and adopters.

Washington is typically a laggard when it comes to the government’s ability to make laws and policies that keep up with changes wrought by new technologies. Of course, there are some who prefer it that way, but that’s another story. And government employees — both civilian and military — are no different from typical users in their ability to multitask. 

With tens of millions of Americans using their cell phones or other handheld devices to send and receive text messages, the federal government has recently turned its attention to the dangers posed by drivers who are too busy texting to keep their eyes on the road.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently issued federal guidance that, effective immediately, prohibits texting by drivers of commercial vehicles, such as large trucks and buses. Violators will be subject to civil or criminal penalties of as much as $2,750. The move comes on the heels of President Barack Obama’s executive order that bans federal employees from texting while driving government-owned vehicles or using government-owned equipment. It went into effect Dec. 30.

Like almost everyone else, the government has known for years that texting while driving is risky business. People who drive while texting take their eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds of every six seconds that they are texting and are 20 times more likely to get in an accident than nondistracted vehicle operators, according to a study from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. At 55 miles per hour, that means the texting driver is traveling the length of a football field, including the end zones, without looking at the road.

Texting while driving is not the only digital diversion that can have dire consequences. Some Marines in Afghanistan — and probably elsewhere — are heading out on patrol with their iPods turned on and listening to music — or worse — watching movies, reports Tom Ricks of Foreign Policy. The result, the story implies, was more injury and death than would otherwise have occurred.

“As smart phones, iPad tablets and other equipment become standard issue for the military in order for them to do the job on the net-centric battlefield — as they will — how do you police the potentially deadly uses along with the good stuff?” asks Federal Computer Week’s Brian Robinson in response to the debate sparked by Ricks’ piece.

Speaking of iPad…

Apple, a company on a hot streak as creator of the category kings iPod and iPhone, introduced its newest new thing late last month. Apple CEO Steve Jobs called the company's $499 tablet computer, dubbed the iPad, magical and revolutionary and said it “creates and defines an entirely new category of devices.”

Industry reviewers beg to differ. “I cannot see it escaping the tablet computer dead zone any time soon,” writes John Dvorak of PC Magazine. The iPad’s primary sins, he says, are its inability to multitask, a missing stylus-based input option so people can draw and take notes on it, and the lack of a camera so they could use it for videoconferencing.

Other reviewers questioned Apple’s claims about the iPad’s 10-hour battery life under normal operating conditions. The device is not yet available, so the claim could not be verified. The reviewers, including John Breeden II of our sister publication, Government Computer News, based his skepticism on the iPad’s use of a display technology called In-Plane Switching, which is more power-hungry than other options.

After Breeden got an earful from the Apple faithful for daring to question the company, he sent an e-mail message to Jobs regarding the battery claim. And lo and behold, he received what appeared to be a message from Jobs himself. The Apple founder and czar insisted that the advertised specs are, in fact, true.

Seems it might be kind of a sore spot for a company that lately has been used to only dazzling accolades.

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

The Fed 100

Read the profiles of all this year's winners.


  • Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at a 2016 campaign event. Image: Shutterstock

    'Buy American' order puts procurement in the spotlight

    Some IT contractors are worried that the "buy American" executive order from President Trump could squeeze key innovators out of the market.

  • OMB chief Mick Mulvaney, shown here in as a member of Congress in 2013. (Photo credit Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

    White House taps old policies for new government makeover

    New guidance from OMB advises agencies to use shared services, GWACs and federal schedules for acquisition, and to leverage IT wherever possible in restructuring plans.

  • Shutterstock image (by Everett Historical): aerial of the Pentagon.

    What DOD's next CIO will have to deal with

    It could be months before the Defense Department has a new CIO, and he or she will face a host of organizational and operational challenges from Day One

  • USAF Gen. John Hyten

    General: Cyber Command needs new platform before NSA split

    U.S. Cyber Command should be elevated to a full combatant command as soon as possible, the head of Strategic Command told Congress, but it cannot be separated from the NSA until it has its own cyber platform.

  • Image from Shutterstock.

    DLA goes virtual

    The Defense Logistics Agency is in the midst of an ambitious campaign to eliminate its IT infrastructure and transition to using exclusively shared, hosted and virtual services.

  • Fed 100 logo

    The 2017 Federal 100

    The women and men who make up this year's Fed 100 are proof positive of what one person can make possibile in federal IT. Read on to learn more about each and every winner's accomplishments.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group