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Proposed Distracted Driving Law Won't Stop Siri

A study says that iPhone's Siri program -- which can be used without hands or eyes -- is a huge distraction for drivers.
Flickr Photo/Elizabeth Press (CC-BY-NC-ND)
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A study says that iPhone's Siri program -- which can be used without hands or eyes -- is a huge distraction for drivers.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission is taking another run at an expanded distracted driving law. A proposed bill is sitting at the governor’s office now. The legislation would expand the current ban on texting or holding a handset to the ear to include touching a mobile device while driving.

Though the proposal addresses more of the ways people are interacting with their devices, it leaves out one major distraction:  Siri.

Siri, the personal assistant on Apple’s iPhone, is especially taxing on the driving brain, a AAA study found.

The study did not look at personal assistants on other mobile phones, such as Microsoft’s Cortana. However, what it found was drivers trying to get Siri to obey commands were often frustrated. And that led to distraction.

The proposed legislation in Washington focuses on how people are using hands and eyes to interact with their devices. Drivers don’t need either to use Siri. However, the law needs to identify behavior that’s enforceable.

“Hands are something that officers can see,” said Angie Ward of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. “Touching their phone, texting, having a screen time while they’re driving. That’s what we’re trying to get at.”

It's not just devices that are to blame for driver distractions. KUOW asked people on Twitter, and the responses pointed out all kinds of distracted driving on local roads, much of which is unlikely to ever fit into legislation. One surprise repeat mention: a woman hitting her head while driving.

Cathy Darracott is the second person to mention seeing such a thing on the road. She runs an office of Allstate Insurance, and she answers the phone on Mondays, when people call in to report their accidents.

"They don’t necessarily want to tell you what they were doing. What I hear a lot of times is 'I looked they just weren’t there, they just came out of nowhere,'" Darracott said.  "It’s amazing just how many people just come out of nowhere."

Seattle drivers do not have a good reputation with Allstate. On a list of best drivers in the county – with slots for 200 US cities – Seattle came in 173rd.

“In Seattle we’re expecting people to have an accident every seven and a half years," Darracott said. Drivers in the city that won, Fort Collins, Colorado, only had an accident every 14 years.

Darracott has a theory. “In Seattle there’s construction,” she said. “There’s bumper to bumper freeway traffic and as people are driving at those slow speeds they’re waiting for their turn to go. They start to get complacent. They get lazy. They look at their cellphone."

“And then when it’s time to go all of a sudden they realize, 'Oh I got to take off.' And then traffic stops ahead of them and now they’ve just bumped into the person ahead of them."

For insurance purposes, we call these things accidents. But increasingly people are preferring to call them crashes. 

“It’s really not random chance,” said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center.  "People are doing something they shouldn’t be doing. Which means it’s not an accident, it’s someone’s fault. Therefore they are far more preventable than we have at times said they should be.”

Insurers have figured this out too. Several are starting to offer a lower insurance rate in exchange for using a device that allows the insurer to see how the car is being driven. Allstate looks at four factors, including how many times the car has to brake hard. A little’s fine, a lot can indicate aggressive driving or inattention.

Insurers think we can change. So the people who are working to expand the Washington law against device distraction. “We may not legislate ourselves through this problem but we’ve got a smart citizenry that does the right thing a lot of times behind the wheel," said Ward of the state’s traffic safety commission.

Anyone can join the discussion about this story on KUOW's Facebook page