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

The popularity of portable entertainment and communication devices creates concerns about driving and job safety.

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.

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