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Jamming in the Name of Safety?

Amid federal and state crackdowns on distracted driving, controversy surrounds FCC ban on blocking cell phone communications, even by drivers

By Ryan Gray Can’t put that cell phone down while behind the wheel? Tere

could soon be an app for that. But first, many questions remain to be answered. Te past two years have seen the topic of distracted driving,

and specifically mobile wireless communications, rise to a level of national attention on par with health care reform, immigration and creating new jobs. Te issue certainly has been a center piece of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s regulatory efforts. But despite the studies and reports that spell out the danger of talking or texting on cell phones while driving, the behavior still continues. So what is the best way to stop it? Since the 1990 amendment to the Communications Act, the

FCC has banned any products that interfere with the transmission of radio frequencies, such as cell phone jammers. Te logic fol- lows that such technology could be used to hijack broadcasts or prohibit, say, 9-1-1 calls from going through. Cell phone jammers are currently allowed only in federal prisons to prohibit inmates from carrying on illegal activity while behind bars. But over the past several months, national news outlets have published sto- ries on possible technology advances that could potentially keep drivers’ hands off of their cell phones. LaHood was asked recently about just such technology and how it might be used to prohibit driver behavior that is dangerous if not outright illegal, depend- ing upon state law. “Tere’s a lot of technology out there now that can disable

phones and we’re looking at that,” LaHood said on the MSNBC news show “Morning Joe” in November, adding that no ruling was imminent. “A number of [cell technology innovators] came to our Distracted Driving Summit here in Washington and pre- sented their technology, and that’s one way. But you have to have good laws, you have to have good enforcement, and you have to have people take personal responsibility. Tat’s the bottom line.” At about the same time, Quinnipiac University released results

from a nationwide poll that found two-thirds of Americans fa- vor a national ban on mobile phones while driving. Surprisingly, there seems to be little discussion about violating personal free- doms, namely allowing “Big Brother” to block your cell phone calls and texts. Federal prisoners are exempt because they sur-

26 School Transportation News Magazine January 2011

While it remains against federal law to jam cell phone calls, the technology exists, at least theoretically, to prohibit drivers from carrying on conversations while behind the wheel.

render civil liberties once a guilty verdict is read. Yet, even when asked about how this technology could affect motorists in their personal vehicles, both the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization founded in 1990 to defend digital rights, deferred to each other for comment. For other reasons, taking that technology into a car, or a school

bus, is a much different deal than prohibiting prisoners from chatting or texting on their cell phones. How, for example, can a product pinpoint a specific cell phone, an individual caller, and block transmissions without affecting those nearby? And what is the intent of the device? Te ban on such products, found in Section 333 of the Com-

munications Act, centers on such issues. Te FCC has been very clear on its intention to outlaw the sale of any signal jammers that could be used for any reason, malicious or otherwise, such as keeping drivers’ attention on the road and off their cell phone. In agreement is CTIA, the national association representing wireless providers, which asked for and was granted an FCC declaratory ruling in 2007 to outlaw the sale of any product that interferes with signals. “Any violation of the integrity of airwaves can be potentially

disastrous in terms of emergency communications or other vital communications. Tat’s why interference is illegal,” comments John Walls, CTIA’s vice president of public affairs. “Just as impor- tant in the discussion is there are a number of legal applications being developed and currently on the marketplace, network- based solutions where it’s possible for restriction of use that can be built into a network so, at a certain speed, the network will recognize the device is moving and shut off communications.” Jeremy Chalmers says he has the answer. But, at least for now,

it’s not an easy one. Chalmers is lead council for Trinity Noble, a 3-year-old technology company that develops solutions to address distracted driving. For the past couple of years, Trinity

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