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25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
A series of posts describing how this all came about. (Click on picture above)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Unintended Consequences

The cellular industry brought up the concept of "unintended consequences" in trying to say - without justification - that jamming of prison cellphones would inevitably result in interference to others and adverse impacts on public safety.

While the US cellphone industry has made tremendous achievements in promoting public safety and has had a large economic impact, it consistently turns a blind eye to its own unintended consequences - be they impacts on traffic safety, prisoner use of cell phones, obnoxious usage of cell phones in public areas, or questions of safety from RF exposure. Think how many ads you have seen from the alcoholic beverage industry advocating safe use of its products and keeping them away from teenagers. How many ads have you seen from the cellular industry advocating responsible use of its products?

Today's New York Times has a front page article, covering about a third of the front page in fact as shown at left, entitled "Dismissing Risks of a Deadly Habit".

The article focuses on legislative inaction on this issue, but let me explore industry inaction since I am really a big believer in deregulation. The article has this comment about actions by one big player:
"Verizon Wireless, for instance, posts instructions on its Web sites not to talk while driving — with or without a headset. But neither Verizon nor any other cellphone company supports legislation that bans drivers from talking on the phone. And the wireless industry does not conduct research on the dangers, saying that is not its responsibility."
Here's a quote about CTIA:
"The association (CTIA), a trade group, fought rules to ban phone use while driving until January, when it shifted to a neutral position on the issue. 'I wouldn’t say, ‘Talk on the phone more and have fewer accidents,’ ' Mr. Walls added. 'I’m just saying, ‘How does this square?’ ' "
For its part, the cellphone industry trade group said it had dropped its objection to restricting cellphone use by drivers — it now is neutral on the subject — because it decided the industry should play no role in trying to shape public policy on the issue. “The change came after we had an epiphany that, if you will, we’re in the business of providing service, and how they use that service is at their discretion,” said Mr. Walls, the industry spokesman.

Faithful readers may recall hearing from Mr. Walls, Vice President, Public Affairs of CTIA, previously here on the inevitable unintended consequences of prison jamming. (Current CTIA position on "safe driving".)

The Times included on their website a video with useful background information to the cellphone driving controversy.
(Click on photo above to see video.)
Frankly, all technologies have some unintended consequences - especially if we are not careful to anticipate them and address them. Let's hope the cellular industry sees the errors of its ways and finds something more constructive to do than to maintain a neutral stance on cell phone use while driving. They might also want to address the issue of the recent MBTA (Boston subway) accident that injured 49 people that was caused by the operator texting while driving!

I recall that when I returned from Japan in 1999, Chairman Kennard wanted to publicly post at the FCC website SAR data for individual cellphone models that showed how much RF radiation each transmitted into the user's body. The UK had recently adopted such a policy at the time. The industry lobbied strongly against such action, even though the data was already in the FCC website in obscure places. Fortunately Chairman Kennard decided to go ahead and the information is now readily available for the public.

The cell phone industry is probably more concerned about cell phone jamming in schools, theaters, and restaurants where cell phone use is merely obnoxious than they are about jamming in prisons where it is dangerous. Recently FCC gave up on permitting cell phone use in airplanes where it is technically possible (despite FAA paranoia) because of public backlash about how obnoxious it could become. Wake up cellular industry - obnoxious cell phone use is a real threat to industry growth and the public forces that blocked airplane use may someday lead to something like the French law that explicitly permits jamming in both prisons and theaters.

Hopefully the cell phone industry can look to the alcoholic beverage industry for some lessons on civic responsibility.

UPDATE - It Get's Worse

On 7/20 NY Times had a new article that starts:

Driven to Distraction
U.S. Withheld Data Showing Risks of Distracted Driving

In 2003, researchers at a federal agency proposed a long-term study of 10,000 drivers to assess the safety risk posed by cellphone use behind the wheel.

They sought the study based on evidence that such multitasking was a serious and growing threat on America’s roadways.

But such an ambitious study never happened. And the researchers’ agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, decided not to make public hundreds of pages of research and warnings about the use of phones by drivers — in part, officials say, because of concerns about angering Congress.

Original NHTSA Documents on Cell Phone Safety in Cars Obtained by FOIA Request

7/22 New York Times editorial

The Truth About Cars and Cellphones

An excerpt:

"The (NHTSA) researchers had rightly proposed a warning to state governors about the initial finding that laws mandating the use of hands-free devices did not solve the problem. The conversation is the distraction. This is a finding since confirmed by other studies that show a driver on the phone is four times as likely to crash as other drivers, and is comparable to someone with 0.08 blood-alcohol content, the threshold for drunken driving.

Six years later, the Transportation Department advises drivers to avoid cellphones except in emergencies. But far too many Americans now consider phoning while driving to be standard behavior. The department estimates that roughly 12 percent of drivers are on the phone at any given time — twice the estimate of its own researchers when their effort to document the risks was rebuffed."

Driven to Distraction
Texting Raises Crash Risk 23 Times, Study Finds

NY Times 7/27/09

The first study of drivers texting inside their vehicles shows that the risk sharply exceeds previous estimates based on laboratory research — and far surpasses the dangers of other driving distractions.

The new study, which entailed outfitting the cabs of long-haul trucks with video cameras over 18 months, found that when the drivers texted, their collision risk was 23 times greater than when not texting.

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