After raising the idea, Department of Transportation says it’s not interested in cell phone jamming technology in cars

Jeff Winkler Contributor
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If education and awareness don’t work, the Department of Transportation Secretary has some other interesting ideas on how to lower the number of distracted drivers careening down the pavement.

It seems people still haven’t gotten the voicemail about the dangers of cell phone use in cars and if the trend continues, the Department of Transportation may have to do something about it — like forcibly disabling your Blackberry.

While Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stressed personal responsibility in a recent TV appearance, the Secretary said the department was “looking into” other technological possibilities.

“I think the technology is there,” said LaHood on MSNBC, Monday. “ I think you’re going to see the technology become adaptable in automobiles to disable these cell phones.”

Or not.

“While NHTSA is currently researching various technologies, Secretary LaHood believes first and foremost that everyone has a personal responsibility to drive safely,” said U.S. Department of Transportation spokeswoman Olivia Alair. “The Department of Transportation currently has no plans to endorse any particular technology.”

It’s probably for the best, too. The technology LaHood seemed to endorse on MSNBC not only encounters general technical difficulties and raises serious questions of government intrusion, but even correctional facilities couldn’t convince regulation bodies — like the FCC — to allow phone jamming.

In early 2009, the Washington D.C. Department of Corrections petitioned the FCC to experiment with phone jamming technology. Prison officials had contended that they need the technology to prevent inmates from using contraband cell phones to plan breakouts. After first permitting the jamming technology, the FCC backed away. Later that year, legislation introduced by Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to allow phone jamming in prisons was referred to a subcommittee.

The FCC stepped back because while it recognized the issues prison officials faced, tech blog Ars Technica noted that “rules are rules, and Section 333 of the Communications Act specifically forbids any ‘willful or malicious interference’ with licensed radio signal.”

One expert said that Lahood’s seeming suggestion to install phone jamming technology in automobiles is fraught with problems.

“It’s just not particularly a well-thought-through plan,” said Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow with the Technology Policy Project and Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “The question is: how do you even begin to make this mandate work?”

Thierer said it would be a bureaucratic nightmare figuring out how to install the technology production and to determine if older automobile models would be required to install similar devices. Then there’s the problem of a much-needed emergency “off” switch.

“But if there’s such a switch in the car to disable it, people are going to preemptively throw that switch,” said Thierer.

Thierer also said that a mobile jamming device would not only disrupt a cell phone in the car but also phones in the vicinity of the moving vehicle.

“The thing that’s really is crazy about this is that there are so many better approaches to dealing with this problem before we would go to such an extreme step to suggest that we should have jamming technology in every vehicle.”

James Guttuso, senior fellow in regulatory policy at the Heritage Foundation,  said the technology wasn’t such a bad idea, as long as it was voluntary.

“In the category of new ideas it would certainly qualify,” he said.

“Suppose you had GM offering this option on the car, maybe you get an insurance rebate,” said Guttuso. “Insurance companies would probably jump at the chance to offer a discount to people who voluntarily relinquish their ability to make phone calls.”

The former “FCC  person” said that he wouldn’t completely dismiss the technology.

“It has some very positive uses,” said Guttuso. “It’s when the government gets its hands on it and imposes universally is when you have problems.”

As for what the Department of Transportation might actually do if awareness and educational efforts fall flat, the department’s Driver Distraction Plan report hints at some other technological possibilities.

“Cell phone filters are an emerging technical option in managing distraction,” reads the report. “The software, which can be downloaded to a cell phone, has thresholds past which calls are not sent through to the driver but instead sent to voicemail; text messages are also blocked.”

A final summary on this project isn’t expected until 2011, according to the report.

Representatives from the DOT as well as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did not respond to requests for details about the project.