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Distracted by Paranoia, Obama Administration to Regulate Map Apps?

story in The New York Times is making the rounds about an Obama administration proposal to clarify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) authority to regulate smartphone navigation apps: the administration supports giving NHTSA this clear authority.

The tech industry is obviously upset, as they should be. But the paranoia underlying the Obama administration's call for burdensome regulation deserves some examination. 

As I have noted in the past, the administration has been obsessed with the supposed scourge of cellphones in automobiles, going so far to call on states to enact bans on texting while driving without examining actual crash data. Why? Because the data do not support cell-phone use bans, whether voice communications or texting. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found in 2010 that states which enacted texting bans did not see accident claims reductions, speculating that drivers became aware of the ban and associated fines and responded by moving their cell phones (and eyes) further from the windshield to prevent police offers from observing their behavior.

The lack of real-world evidence supporting their position has not dissuaded the Obama administration from pushing aggressive and likely counterproductive policies related to in-car technology and distraction risks.

As I noted in 2012, the administration seems incapable of having an adult conversation about distracted driving—and risk tradeoffs in general:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has released a new study on distracted driving [PDF]. According to the agency, 9 percent of total fatal crashes in 2010 (2,843 of 30,196) were "distraction-affected" (D-A). This does not mean that the distracted driver was at fault; rather, it means that a driver involved in a crash reported to the police that they were distracted in some way. Of the D-A fatal crashes, 12 percent involved a cell phone distraction. Of total fatal crashes, cell phone distraction affected barely 1 percent.
If you were to listen to the Obama administration's increasingly bizarre propaganda, you would probably come away thinking that cell phones are the biggest auto-related killer. In reality, they are but one potential distraction under the "D-A" banner, which itself is a subset of inattentive driving. In fact, according to NHTSA, drivers "lost in thought" are involved in 20 percent of D-A crashes and 1.9 percent of total fatal crashes. But this has not led Obama's secretary of transportation to condemn the "national epidemic" of daydreaming-while-driving and recommend useless (and likely counterproductive) laws to combat it.
To be sure, using a cell phone while driving increases crash risk, but so what? NHTSA found that "adjusting audio and/or climate controls" was a distraction factor in about 2 percent of fatal D-A crashes. Should we expect a proportional public service announcement campaign? I would hope not.

According to the latest NHTSA report on distracted driving from April 2014, cell phone use was a factor in 1.07 percent of total crashes and 1.23 percent of fatal crashes. Once again, slightly more people are killed due to drivers daydreaming than by drivers distracted by their cell phones. And drivers merely talking to their passengers next to or behind them are associated with far more crashes.

But back to the issue at hand: NHTSA regulating mobile phone navigation apps. Yes, the auto industry supports such a move. And, yes, it is as dumb as it sounds. Yet it is unclear if Congress will grant NHTSA the necessary regulatory authority. Keep in mind that the provision in question (Sec. 4105) is contained in President Obama's proposed highway bill, which virtually everyone agrees is dead on arrival. While House and Senate drafters could include such a provision in their own respective proposals, and it will likely be proposed by someone, it has many hurdles to clear and, frankly, will not be a top priority for most members of Congress negotiating highway bill reauthorization—nor should it be. Some DMV clerk will not be tinkering with Google Maps anytime soon.

Instead of trying to gum up innovation with sloppy regulatory mandates, Congress and the White House should seek to promote technologies that could solve these problems, such as automated vehicles, by staying out of the way of consumers and developers.

Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward has more here.