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Sunday, February 13, 2011

An Ethical Dilemma for Cell-Phone Companies? Drivers Who Text & Talk

Long before cellphones became ubiquitous, industry pioneers were aware of the risks of multitasking behind the wheel. Their hunches have been validated by many scientific studies showing the dangers of talking while driving and, in 2009, of texting. Despite the mounting evidence, the industry built itself into a $150 billion business in the United States largely by winning over a crucial customer: the driver. For years, it marketed the virtues of cellphones to drivers. Indeed, the industry originally called them car phones and extolled them as useful status symbols in ads, like one from 1984 showing an executive behind the wheel that asked: Can your secretary take dictation at 55 MPH? “That was the business,” said Kevin Roe, a telecommunications industry analyst since 1993. Wireless companies “designed everything to keep people talking in their cars.” The CTIA, the industry’s trade group, supported legislation banning texting while driving. It has also changed its stance on legislation to ban talking on phones while driving — for years, it opposed such laws; then it became neutral. “This was never something we anticipated,” Mr. Largent, head of the CTIA, said in 2009.  However, Bob Lucky, an executive director at Bell Labs from 1982-92, said he knew that drivers talking on cellphones were not focused fully on the road. But he did not think much about it or discuss it and supposed others did not, either, given the industry’s booming fortunes. “If you’re an engineer, you don’t want to outlaw the great technology you’ve been working on,” said Mr. Lucky, now 73. “If you’re a marketing person, you don’t want to outlaw the thing you’ve been trying to sell. If you’re a C.E.O., you don’t want to outlaw the thing that’s been making a lot of money.” One researcher who spoke up about his concerns was quickly shut down. In 1990, David Strayer, a junior researcher at GTE, which later became part of Verizon, noticed more drivers who seemed to be distracted by their phones, and it scared him. He asked a supervisor if the company should research the risks. “Why would we want to know that?” Mr. Strayer recalled being told. He said the message was clear: “Learning about distraction would not be very helpful to the overall business model.” So why did the industry lobby turn to neutral in 2009, when it had for years resisted any governmental regulation on cell phones? 

It is important to remember the rationale of the “overall business model” so we don’t project some sort of fuzzy corporate social responsibility motive.   The industry’s shift to neutral matches a trend in its bottom line:  in the 1980s and early ’90s, wireless companies got 75 percent or more of their revenue from drivers, a figure that fell below 50 percent by the mid-’90s and is by 2009 below 25 percent.  The negative publicity on cellphones from distracted drivers killing people could cost the industry more (in dollars and cents) than what it could otherwise make by selling phones to more drivers.     Public affairs offices and industry lobby groups are simply reflections of the financial interest of the “business model.”   We ought not be fooled, as if an industry suddenly sees the light and does what is right.  Of course, it is in the financial interest of an industry to have us view it as such, but this is of course just more of the same.   Remember that the cell phone industry had reason to know of the problem of distracted drivers but ignored it in following a single-minded profit trajectory.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/07/technology/07distracted.html?ref=business