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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Ray LaHood Calls Out Uber for Distracting Drivers

The former transportation secretary has some harsh words for ride-sharing companies, saying the technology distracts drivers while they’re on the road and could lead to more accidents.

 Photo: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune

Drivers for Uber have 15 seconds to respond to a call for a new fare. Often they have customers in their cars when they have to make that quick response: Do I want this fare? Is the person who wants my services located in a place that’s convenient (and safe) for me to go to?

This is an accident waiting to happen, says former transportation secretary and the nation’s most prominent distracted driving foe, Ray LaHood.

I called LaHood, who is spending the holidays in Peoria, to ask him to respond to Matt Richtel’s highly informative New York Times article, “Distracted Driving and the Risks of Ride-Hailing Services Like Uber” that clearly laid out the risks:

  • According to Richtel’s article, drivers for “ride hailing services” have 15 seconds “to decide whether to accept the fare.” Otherwise the fare will go to another driver and repeated failure to respond to beeps can result, reports Richtel, referencing an interview with a New York Uber driver, in “temporary suspensions for ignoring or declining calls.”
  • Richtel quotes Deborah Hersman, chief executive of the National Safety Council, as saying “There’s not a whole lot of debate [that] this is distracting,” and paraphrases her opinion that “responding to the device takes visual manual and cognitive attention.”
  • While Richtel writes “there have not been widespread reports of accidents caused by Uber drivers,” he does mention the wrongful death lawsuit against an Uber driver in the death of a six-year-old girl in a San Francisco crosswalk and that there is a current dispute whether the driver was using his Uber software at the time of the accident. (The driver’s lawyer claims his was not using his phone when the accident occurred.)
  • Uber’s response to Richtel was that its app “was designed with safety in mind” and that drivers have only to touch the screen anywhere to respond (i.e., they don’t have to look at the device).

Ray LaHood isn’t having any of it. Until another, safer means is invented for people driving for services such as Uber and Lyft, drivers need to pull over to answer the ping, even if it takes them some time to find a safe place at the side of the street or road. These services have to “take personal responsibility; their drivers shouldn’t be using technology while driving a car.”

Obviously there are holes in the argument, I point out. How about if the driver is on the Outer Driver or the Kennedy Expressway. “Well, that’s a problem,” LaHood admits, and suggests that these new and hugely convenient services have a lot more work to do.

The technology is there; it’s just a matter of figuring out how to design it with the passenger in mind, LaHood tells me, mentioning that he’s driving while taking my call and using his voice-activated device. “So you didn’t have to tap your phone?” I asked him. He said his daughter, who was in the passenger seat, did it for him. “So you always have to have your daughter in the car,” I joked. I could hear her pointing out that there’s a device on his steering wheel that allows him to answer.

LaHood agreed with me that having an Uber or Lyft driver with a passenger in the back seat pull off the road to respond may cause some legitimate worry given news stories about sexual assaults.

Here’s a link to an interview I did with LaHood that covers distracted driving but not as it relates to services such as Uber. 

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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