Why you can't sue your wireless carrier in a class action

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Nov 14, 2013 (3 years and 9 months ago)

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Why you can't sue your wireless carrier in a
class action

Millions of wireless subscribers probably don't realize that since a U.S.
Supreme Court decision last year, consumers can no longer file class action
suits against their carriers.


by
Marguerite Reardon

March 27, 2012 4:00 AM PDT

When AT&T slowed down Matt Spaccarelli's unlimited data plan on his
iPhone
, the unemployed
truck driver from Simi Valley, Calif. took the country's largest phone company to court. And as a
surprise to all, he won.

(Credit: Declan McCullagh/CNET)

But Spaccarelli's victory rings hollow. In fact, the route he was forced to take
--

suing AT&T by
himself as opposed to employing a more influential and wider ranging class
-
action lawsuit
--

illustrates just how difficult it is to change a carrier's business practice through legal means.
Rather than big changes and a return of his unli
mited high
-
speed access, he ended up with $850
and a lot of disappointment.

Spaccarelli
sued AT&T because, as he argued, AT&T had stopped of
fering him an unlimited
data service
. Instead, he said the company was slowing down his service when he used 1.5 GB to
2GB of data in a given month. Spaccarelli's service was "throttled" as a result of a new AT&T
policy designed to curb heavy data usage by

its unlimited subscribers.

But thanks to a Supreme Court decision in 2011, which upheld a company's right to include a
clause in contracts prohibiting subscribers from suing the company as part of a class action,
Spaccarelli had only two options when figh
ting AT&T's new policy: He could enter into an
AT&T
-
funded arbitration program or file his suit in small claims court. Spaccarelli opted for
small claims court.

What this meant for AT&T was that instead of facing a multimillion dollar lawsuit, which
repres
ented thousands of disgruntled subscribers, the company only had to deal with a single
subscriber and damages of $850. Even though AT&T lost its case and paid Spaccarelli the court
-
awarded damages, the company was not forced to change its throttling policy
. And in fact, it still
slows down service on what it considers its heaviest data customers, even though AT&T still
calls the plan "unlimited."

Consumer advocates warn that allowing companies, such as AT&T, to ban class actions is bad
for consumers for se
veral reasons. For one, it's inefficient since it requires individual consumers
to fight the same complaint in court or in arbitration multiple times. It creates inconsistent
rulings. Some consumers may win their cases while others lose, even though the fa
cts of the
cases are very similar. And because it requires more effort on behalf of more individuals, it's
unlikely that everyone affected by the wrongdoing will get retribution. But most importantly,
individual claims
--

whether they're in arbitration or
in small claims court
--

lack the necessary
financial muscle to prevent future corporate abuses, or even to correct current ones.

Because all four major wireless carriers in the U.S. include such arbitration
-
only clauses in their
contracts, wireless custom
ers, in particular, are more vulnerable to potential abuses by large
companies. And in a market where more than 90 percent of the population subscribes to wireless
service, that means that millions of consumers no longer have access to a full range of lega
l
options when their carrier breaks the law.

"Companies should not be able to effectively insulate themselves from liability when they rip off
their customers," said Senator Al Franken (D
-
Minn.), who has sponsored a bill that would
prohibit companies from
inserting arbitration clauses in consumer contracts. "But that's what a
recent decision by the Supreme Court has allowed them to do."

The case: AT&T vs. Concepcion

How did consumers lose their right to file class action lawsuits? Well, it started with a couple
named Vincent and Liza Concepcion, who sued AT&T in California for deceptive practices. The
couple claimed that they had received free cell phones from AT&T as

part of a promotion for its
service. But they were later charged sales tax on the full price of the phones, which violated
California state law. Because thousands of other customers also were charged full tax for devices
they received at a discounted pric
e, the Concepcions filed their case as a class action lawsuit.

But AT&T claimed that the couple could not sue the company as part of a class action, because
in the contract, AT&T stipulates that customers must resolve disputes with the company through
arb
itration or via small claims court.

Initially, the lower courts sided with the Concepcions. A California federal district court and the
Ninth Circuit struck down the contract, ruling that it violated the state's consumer protection
laws.

AT&T appealed the
decision and it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the case
AT&T vs. Concepcion, AT&T argued that the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925 pre
-
empts state
contract law. And therefore the class
-
action exemption, when arbitration is included as an
alt
ernative, should be honored as any other part of a legal contract.

In April last year, the Supreme Court in a 5
-
4 decision that was divided among traditional liberal
and conservative lines ruled in AT&T's favor. Writing for the majority Justice Antonin Sc
alia
supported AT&T's arguments. And he said the case couldn't proceed as a class action because it
was inconsistent with the Federal Arbitration Act.

In his dissent Justice Stephen Breyer said that it was unreasonable to require consumers to
arbitrate the
ir cases individually because the amounts in dispute would likely be so small that
many people would simply not file a claim.

"What rational lawyer would have signed on to represent the Concepcions in litigation for the
possibility of fees stemming from a
$30.22 claim?"

What does this mean for consumers?

The Supreme Court ruling did not outlaw class action lawsuits. Instead, what it did was give
large companies the option to insert clauses that would force customers to go through arbitration
instead of allo
wing them to file a class action. Brian Fitzpatrick, an associate professor at
Vanderbilt Law School, said he's already seeing more companies insert these clauses into their
customer contracts. Today, the four largest nationwide wireless operators each inc
lude
arbitration clauses in their contracts with customers, which means that most wireless customers
are unable to sue their wireless carrier in a class action lawsuit.

"Class action lawsuits are really the last mechanism that consumers have to hold big businesses
accountable to the law," said Michael Aschenbrener, founder and a principal at Aschenbrener
Law, a firm that specializes in consumer rights. "Consumers today ar
e forced to accept contracts
that they have no ability to negotiate that limits their rights. And it allows big businesses to break
the law and get away with it."

In the past, class action lawsuits have helped push the industry to make changes in how they
do
business. For example, there were several class action cases filed around the country in which
consumers argued that the early termination fees that carriers charged for ending service early
were unfair.

Most of the cases were settled before they went
to trial. Verizon Wireless settled a case in July
2008 and agreed to pay $21 million to former subscribers. T
-
Mobile USA settled a case filed in
2008 for about $11.5 million. And Sprint lost its case in California in 2009. A judge
ordered the
company to pay back $18.2 million in collected fees to consumers
.

In some instances, the damages paid to individual consumers was very small. But these lawsuits
helped draw attention to the outrage over

these fees, which resulted in some public hearings
regarding early
-
termination fees. The Federal Communications Commission had even considered
regulating early
-
termination fees to establish a national policy. The agency backed off when the
industry reform
ed the policies on their own. Now all four major wireless carriers
prorate their
early termination fees
, so that subscribers pay less to end their contracts toward the final months
of their c
ontracts than in the beginning of the contract period.

But sometimes the settlements themselves include provisions in which companies promise to
change their practices to prevent future wrongdoing. For example, Verizon Communications
settled a class action

lawsuit earlier this year for allegedly billing its landline phone customers
for charges from third party companies that were not authorized by the customer. The practice is
known as "cramming."

While Verizon did not admit any wrongdoing as a condition of

the settlement, which is typical of
most class action cases, the company did agree to refund customers who were overcharged. In
some instances, customers may recover hundreds or even thousands of dollars in refunds.

But the most meaningful part of the se
ttlement included specific changes to Verizon's billing
practices that prevent "cramming" in the future. It's this change in how Verizon conducts its
business that offers all consumers the most benefit.

"Without class action lawsuits, consumers are really
in trouble," said Fitzpatrick. "They have lost
what is probably their most powerful device to hold companies accountable. Even if you never
get a penny as a result of a class action lawsuit, all consumers still benefit because these lawsuits
can result in
better business practices that affect all consumers."

Big business says it knows what's best for consumers.

While plaintiffs' attorneys and consumer advocates believe that class action lawsuits are useful
deterrents, big business argues that they are too
expensive and only really benefit attorneys rather
than consumers.

In the AT&T vs. Concepcion case, AT&T argued that arbitration benefits consumers, because
it's fast, less expensive than a class action suit and often yields a higher settlement than what
can
be gotten via a class action legal system. The company's argument in a nutshell was that if an
individual consumer could settle his grievance quickly and get a substantial amount for it, he
would do better under arbitration than in a class action lawsu
it.

"Class action lawsuits are only an engine for lawyers to make money," said Andrew Pincus, an
attorney with the law firm Mayer Brown in Washington, D.C. Pincus argued AT&T's case before
the Supreme Court. "You have to look at what brings more justice to

more people. And the
reality is that individual consumers can get more through arbitration than they can get through a
class action suit. "

The Supreme Court agreed with AT&T. And in the decision, the justices noted that "the
Concepcions were better off u
nder their arbitration agreement with AT&T than they would have
been as participants in a class action, which could take months, if not years, and which may
merely yield an opportunity to submit a claim for recovery of a small percentage of a few
dollars."

Marty Richter, a spokesman for AT&T, said that members of a class action often don't even file
claims because the payout is so small.

"The District Court cited studies that show class
-
action members rarely receive more than
pennies on the dollar for thei
r claims," he said. "And that few class members
--
approximately 1
percent to 3 percent
--
bother to file a claim when the amount they would receive is small," he
said.

He added that almost all of AT&T's customers are able to resolve their concerns through the

arbitration process or through small claims courts. AT&T even pays the cost of arbitration, and it
provides an economic incentive to assert claims, that some consumers might otherwise have not
felt was worthwhile.

For example, under AT&T's arbitration po
licy, if a consumer receives an award that is greater
than the pre
-
arbitration settlement offer, the AT&T agreement requires the company to pay the
greater amount of either the arbitration amount or $10,000. In addition, the company will pay
twice the amou
nt of the consumer's attorney's fees.

"We strongly believe that small claims and arbitration are viable options for concerned
customers," Richter said. " That's

why we have embraced both options in our customer
agreements, and we have seen countless other companies take a similar approach. We believe
those options are the most fair, efficient, and pro
-
consumer way for customers to resolve their
concerns."

And whe
n it comes to pressuring companies to change how they operate, Pincus argues that
customers get quicker results at little to no expense by using social media to voice their concerns.

He pointed to two recent examples. In December, consumers outraged by Ve
rizon Wireless's
plans to charge its customers $2 to pay their bills online took to Twitter and Facebook. The
frenzy caught the attention of the FCC, which said it planned to investigate. Within a day of the
$2 fee being leaked, Verizon caved to the pressu
re and did not introduce the fee.

This followed a similar campaign that consumers launched against Bank of America over fees it
planned to charge debit card users. After a deluge of social media attention with consumers
threatening to boycott Bank of Ameri
ca and a potential inquiry from regulators, the bank
relented and reversed its decision on the charge the $5 fee.

Even AT&T made small concessions to angry unlimited data plan users whose service was being
throttled. After months of bad publicity and consu
mer outrage regarding the new policy, AT&T
clarified its position. Now, instead of slowing down the top 5 percent of heavy data users, the
company slows its 3G customers after they consume 3GB of usage.

"The real power for consumers is in social media and

pressuring the brands. Not in lawsuits,"
Pincus said. "People talk about class action lawsuits as deterrents, but what's really effective is
the threat of regulation and government attention. And you don't need a lawsuit to get that.
Consumers have many p
owerful tools available to them today to collectively raise awareness."

But what about choice?

Consumer advocates and legal experts agree that social media is a powerful tool. But they say it's
simply not enough. For Senator Al Franken (D
-
Minn.) the issue
is really that consumers have no
choice. He concedes that arbitration may sometimes benefit consumers. And he agrees social
media can draw awareness to consumer issues. But consumers should be able to decide for
themselves, which avenue is best for them.

A
nd that's why last year he introduced the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2011, which forbids
companies from forcing its customers into arbitration when they sign a contract. Franken along
with 12 other senators that are co
-
sponsoring the bill, believe that th
e Federal Arbitration Act of
1925 was not meant to apply to contracts made between companies and their customers, but
between two companies doing business with one another. And it was not meant to limit an
individual's choices before a dispute even arises.


"Customers should have the option to bring a claim before our courts
--
including a class action
claim
--
if that is the only way to get justice," he said. "If they choose to use arbitration, fine. If
they choose to band together with other consumers and fil
e a class
-
action suit, that's fine too. All
my bill does is restore their right to make a choice."

But Pincus who argued for AT&T in the Supreme Court says that offering consumers such a
choice is unrealistic because it's too expensive for companies.

"Co
mpanies can't afford to maintain two dispute systems," he said. "Consumers get better relief
through arbitration. So this has to be the only system in place, otherwise it's simply too
expensive."

Fitzpatrick, a law professor at Vanderbilt, said he isn't
buying this argument.

"How is it really more efficient for a company to deal with thousands of individual claims
instead of allowing people to present their case as a single group?" he asked. "Class action
lawsuits actually streamline the process and corre
ct wrongdoing often for people who didn't even
realize they were being cheated."

As for Spaccarelli, who is one of the few who took on AT&T and won, he said he's happy about
the victory. But he added that since AT&T's wireless service is the only service t
hat's available
where he lives, he's still a customer. And he's disappointed AT&T is still "throttling" unlimited
subscribers.

"This wasn't really about the money," he said. "The $850 they paid me means nothing to AT&T.
And it hasn't changed the fact that

I am still not getting the unlimited service I was promised. I'd
rather get my unlimited service back."



Celebrity hacker pleads guilty to Scarlett
Johansson e
-
mail hack

"Operation Hackerazzi" comes to a close as the hacker most known for
sending private

nude photos of Scarlett Johansson to gossip Web sites pleads
guilty.


by
Dara Kerr

March 26, 2012 8:01 PM PDT


Christopher Chaney entered guilty pleas to nine felony counts in federal court today, admitting
that he hacked into dozens of celebrities' e
-
mail accounts, including those of Mila Kunis and
Scarlett Johansson, according to the
Los Angeles Times
.

"Today's guilty pleas shine a bright light on the dark underworld of computer hacking," said U.S.
Attorney Andre Birotte Jr., wh
ose office prosecuted the case, according to the Los Angeles
Times. "This case demonstrates that everyone, even public figures, should take precautions to
shield their personal information from the hackers that inhabit that dark underworld."

Chaney, 35 of
Jacksonville, Fla., faces a maximum of 60 years in federal prison when his
sentence is announced in July. He was
nabbed last October

following an 11
-
month investigation
that federal officials named "Operation Hackerazzi."

Originally he was charged with a 26
-
count indictment that accused Chaney of unauthorized
access of protected computers, wiretapping, identity theft, and damaging computers. While mo
re
than 50 victims from the entertainment industry were connected with the case, only five people
were identified by name: Johansson, Kunis, Christina Aguilera, Simone Harouche, and Renee
Olstead.

After the bust Chaney initially pled not guilty, but, acco
rding to
TMZ
, he struck a plea deal with
the prosecutors and ended up agreeing to nine counts, including identity theft, wiretapping, a
nd
unauthorized access of protected computers. He also agreed to surrender his computers, external
drives, and cell phone.

Over the course of the federal hearing, Chaney admitted to hacking into celebrity accounts,
obtaining private e
-
mails and confidentia
l documents, publicizing their personal information, and
sending photos to two celebrity Web sites. Some of the photos of Johansson were nude photos
she took privately to send to her then
-
husband Ryan Reynolds, according to
The Guardian
.

Chaney gained access to the accounts by using the "Forgot your password?" feature in their e
-
mail addresses, according to the Los Angeles Times. He then would reset
the passwords by
answering security questions from public information he found by searching the Web. According
to the plea agreement, Chaney received thousands of e
-
mails from the victims' accounts.




High school expels student for tweeting f
-
word

An
Indiana high school expels a student for a silly, profane tweet, even
though it seems to have been sent at 2:30 a.m. The school suggests that it
may track all of its students' tweets, regardless of what time or where they
were sent.


by
Chris Matyszczyk

March 26, 2012 4:46 PM PDT


Austin Carroll, the effing tweeter.

(Credit: Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET)

I am sure that the people who run Garrett High School in Indiana radiate intelligence.

Perhaps, though, they have tossed a little inkblot onto their pristine record with the expulsion of
senior Austin Carroll. He didn't assault anyone. He didn't toss a pr
ojectile, nor brandish a knife.
No, it seems that he merely tweeted.

Please prepare your best judgmental pose while I transcribe (mostly) his supposedly most
offensive tweet: "F*** is one of those F****** words you can F****** put anywhere in a
F****** sen
tence and it still F****** makes sense."

There, how did that feel? Juvenile? To some, perhaps. Amusing? Mostly to his peers, surely. But
offensive? Offensive enough to get him thrown out of school, with a mere three months of his
time there left to serve?
With this, some might struggle.

You might wonder whether he sent this tweet during school hours. Perhaps he had been moved
by a reading of Hunter S. Thompson. Well,
in an interview with Indiana News Center

he said
that he had tweeted from home.

"If my account is on my own personal account, I don't think the school or anybody should be
looking at it. Because it's my own personal st
uff and it's none of their business," he said, with
some sagacity.


How is it, then, that the school heard about this tweet at all? Did one of his followers declare him
to be unsuitable for further education?

Well, now. The principal of Garrett High Scho
ol told INC that regardless of whether it was sent
from home
--
or, indeed, whether a school computer was used
--
the school may track students'
tweets. When Carroll logged in at school, his tweets might have been picked up by the school's
watchdog system.

Fort Wayne's Journal Gazette does report

that Carroll is something of an eccentric. He fought to
be allowed to wear a kilt on Irish holidays. He had also been warned before abo
ut sending ribald
tweets using school
-
issued computers.

This time, though, there seems ample evidence that he tweeted at 2:30 a.m. Still, the school
reportedly maintained that the tweets were adorned with its IP address.

It would be natural to suspect tha
t the school had tired a little of Carroll. However, even if the
school could prove that he tweeted a few naughty words on its own computers, was the only
option expulsion?

Could the school have not asked him to recite some literature at morning assembly?
The works
of the 15th century author
William Dunbar

would have been appropriate, for he is alleged to
have been the first to place the f
-
word upon parchment.

Might the school not have asked him to

recite the famous poem of Phillip Larkin titled
"This Be
The Verse."

It begins with the lines: "They f*** you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean
to, but they do."

Might he not have been asked to declaim
an essay by Adam Mansbach
--
author of "Go the F***
to Sleep"
--
in New York magazine that offered of the f
-
word: "Its grammatical ver
satility cannot
be topped: You can use it as noun, verb, adverb, adjective, or interjection, not to mention in any
mood whatsoever, from exultation to rage."

Which is pretty much what Carroll was saying in his tweet.

The school appears no longer to be spe
aking publicly, on the advice of its attorney. Meanwhile,
some of the students threatened a protest on Friday, so much so that police were called.

It may well be that Carroll's tweet didn't represent the highest type of wit. Some might conclude,
though, t
hat the principal of Garrett High School is a very particular type of wit indeed.



Robots could be future playmates for
kids

Written By Joseph Castro

Published March 21, 2012

LiveScience




A child interacting with Robovie, a remotely controlled humanoid
robot. In the near future, children may view
such robots as friends.

(American Psychological Association)




A child giving Robovie a hug.

(American Psychological Association)

As technology continues to improve, humanlike robots will likely play an ever
-
i
ncreasing role in
our lives: They may become tutors for children, caretakers for the elderly,
office

receptionists or
even housemaids. Children will come of age with these androids, which naturally raises the
question: What kind of relationships will kids build with personified robots?

Children will view humanoid robots as intelligent social and moral be
ings, allowing them to
develop substantial and meaningful relationships with the machines, new research suggests.

Researchers analyzed the interactions between nearly 100 children and
Robovie
, a 3
-
foot
-
tall
(0.9 meters) robot developed by the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in
Japan
. In the study, two technicians controlled Robovie remotely from

another room, leading the
children to believe that the robot was autonomous. The researchers imparted humanlike
behavior to the robot, such as having Robovie claim unfair treatment when he was told to go
into the closet at the end of the interaction sessi
ons.

Follow
-
up interviews with the children showed that the kids believed Robovie had mental states,
such as being intelligent and having feelings, and was a social entity capable of being a friend
and confidante. Many of the children also believed that Ro
bovie deserved fair treatment and
should not be psychologically harmed. [
10 Things That Make Humans Special
]

"We typically think [of] robots as rational
calculators

rather than humanlike and emotional," said
Adam Waytz, a psychologist at Northwestern University in Illinois, who was not involved in the
study. "But this resea
rch provides a nice example of how
endowing a robot with emotions

can
lead children to treat the robot as a companion and to consider its moral standing."

A mental, social and moral entity

A major
goal in the field of human
-
robot interaction is to determine how people will behave
socially with robots in the near future. Will we treat robots as tools to be used and tossed aside
at will, or will we see them as moral entities deserving of
fairness and rights
?

To find out, Solace Shen, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Washington, and
her colleagues recruited 90 children ages 9, 12 or 15 years old to inte
ract with Robovie. The
robot has some autonomous functions and
speech recognition
, but the researchers instead
chose to control Robovie themselves.

"We tried to create a situation where people come in and interact with the robot in what would
be a possible future scenario," Shen told LiveScience.

The 15
-
minute interaction sessions had several stages designed to impart Robovie with
seemingly human char
acteristics and behavior. For example, Robovie introduces himself to the
children, shows them an aquarium and teaches them about the ocean, asks them to move a ball
out of his way, plays "I Spy" and argues with a researcher, who is present for the entire s
ession.

In the last leg of the session, a second researcher interrupts the "I Spy"
game

to tell Robovie
that he is no longer needed and has to go into the
closet. Robovie objects and says that he is
scared of being in the closet, but the researcher puts him in there anyway.

Immediately following the staged interactions, the researchers interviewed each child for 50
minutes. The majority of the children thoug
ht that Robovie had mental states; for instance, 79
percent believed he was intelligent and 60 percent believed that he had feelings. On the social
side of things, 84 percent of the children said they might like to spend time with Robovie if they
were lone
ly and 77 percent believed that he could be their friend.

Fewer children attributed Robovie with moral rights: 54 percent of the children believed it was
wrong to put Robovie in the closet (whereas 98 percent said it would be wrong to put a person
in a clo
set), and 42 percent believed that Robovie should be paid if he
teaches people

about the
ocean all day long.

A fanciful view

Overall, fewer 15
-
year
-
olds saw Rob
ovie as a mental, social and moral being than did the 9
-

and 12
-
year
-
olds, who scored the robot relatively the same on mental capacity. "But even
though the 15
-
year
-
olds attribute less of these qualities, overhalf of them scored pretty high for
Robovie as
a mental, social, moral entity," Shen said.

The older children may just have a less "fanciful" view of robots and see them as mechanical
machines. Alternatively, their views may have something to do with adolescents, which is a
"unique age group that comes

with its own issues and struggles," Shen explained. To really
figure it all out, the researchers need to follow up with similar studies involving Robovie and
adults.

"If we did [that] and we saw that this developmental trend continues, then it would give
us more
clear evidence that maybe the older you get, the more you lose this fanciful view of robots,"
Shen said.

Whatever the case, the researchers think that the results have important implications for the
design of
future robots
. If engineers design robots to simply obey orders, the master
-
servant
relationship that children experience may trickle into their interactions with other humans. Is it
then better to d
esign robots with the ability to "push back" as Robovie did when he was
instructed to go into the closet?

Shen said there is no easy answer to which design scheme is better.

"I don't think children will treat robots as nonsocial beings, they will treat the
m as social actors
and interact with them in social ways," she said. "But we need more data and evidence to see
how adults, as well as children, will develop relationships with these robots."

The study was published in the March issue of the journal Develo
pmental Psychology.

Copyright 2012
LiveScience
, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material
may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



Read more:
http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2012/03/20/robots
-
could
-
be
-
future
-
playmates
-
for
-
kids/#ixzz1qJobpntQ



As car tech advances, can distracted
drivers keep up?

Personal Tech

Written By
John R. Quain

Published March 13, 2012

FoxNews.com




iStock

Driver

distraction is like the weather. Everybody complains about it but no one does
anything about it.

Well, now the federal government says it wa
nts to do something about it.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (
NHTSA
) held the first of three
public hearings on the topic Monday in Washington, D.C., to get input about a set of
proposed voluntary
guidelines for in
-
car navigation and integrated technology systems.
Hearings in Chicago and Los Angeles are to follow later this week.

NHTSA has suggested that built
-
in systems meet clarity and timing guidelines to
minimize distraction while other function
s, such as texting, Web browsing, and dialing,
be disabled when a car is in motion.

As anyone who spends any time behind the wheel knows, driver distraction is an all
-
too
common problem. I've dodged men who are texting as they weave between lanes, with
chi
ldren sitting in the back seat. I've followed women checking
Facebook

posts while they cruise the Interstate at 70
-
mph
-
plus. And I've narrowly avoided being
run over by teens checki
ng their phones as they approach intersections.

Many folks aren't as lucky.

Over 3,000 people in the U.S. were killed in distraction
-
related accidents last year,
according to NHTSA. Fortunately, there are already some laws against using a
cellphone or text
ing behind the wheel.

Ten states ban the hand
-
held use of cellphones, and 35 states ban texting outright,
according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And the laws seem to have a
positive effect, according to a new University of California, Ber
keley, study released
earlier this month. Hand
-
held cellphones were banned in California in 2008, followed by
a ban on texting in 2009. In the years since then, the report says deaths due to drivers
using cellphones dropped nearly 50 percent. Either driver
s are getting smarter, or
they're afraid of getting a ticket.

So if it's finally dawning on people that driving and looking down at a phone is
compatible with only one thing
--

crashing
--

what's the government worried about?

The danger on the horizon is t
he growing number of connected cars, automobiles that
are linked to
the Internet

and to
smartphones

Many consumers want the ability to play
Pandora stations in the car or to find a local restaurant. But this level of connectivity
surpasses anything we've seen before, and NHTSA is worried. Will drivers get hooked
on in
-
car

apps, text messages read aloud in the car, Facebook postings, and finding
friends while driving down the highway?

Automakers and so
-
called “telematics”
companies

(which make in
-
car technology)
argue that connecting smartphones to the dashboard makes them safer to use and
reduces distraction, because drivers don’t have to reach for the phone in their lap. But
should anyone be giving a song a thumbs

up or listening to platitudinous Tweets while
negotiating rush
-
hour traffic?

Ford, which has been on the cutting edge of much of this with its Sync and My Ford
Touch systems, has received kudos
--

and criticism
--

for its technology. But the
company is cl
early giving drivers the most options
--

including touch screens and
additional buttons
--

in an attempt to minimize distractions. The company has also
restricted some tasks, such as tapping in addresses while driving, and it has pioneered
the use of voice
-
activated technology, notes Steve Kenner, the company’s director of
automotive safety.

Ford also supports a Federal ban on the use of hand
-
held devices while driving.

So clearly the auto companies are concerned about distractions. Several have told me
in
candid, not
-
for
-
attribution conversations that they are worried about the
consequences of having apps in the dash. But they are just as worried about
competitors adding such features, so they feel compelled to add them too.

How to restrict such systems is
unclear. The NHTSA wants limits on how many seconds
a particular task can take, but how can you time tuning the radio? And while the agency
plans to lay down guidelines for mobile phone and voice recognition systems as well,
those proposals are years away.

The rate of technological advance is clearly exceeding the government's ability to cope
and implement new rules. This was clearly demonstrated recently when a mandate to
install a simple technology to save lives
--

rear
-
view camera systems
--

was delayed
yet
again.

Originally due to be issued in February 2011, the new rule would mandate that all
vehicles meet a rear visibility standard to prevent pedestrians from being backed over.
(NHTSA estimates that 17,000 people are injured in this way every year.)
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Congress he was delaying the rule again,
until the end of the year.

In the meantime, technology marches forward. The question is, will drivers be able to
keep up?

Follow John R. Quain on Twitter
@jqontech

or find more tech coverage at
J
-
Q.com
.



Read more:
http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2012/03/13/as
-
car
-
tech
-
advances
-
can
-
distracted
-
drivers
-
keep
-
up/#ixzz1qJpKvbnR