October 14, 2014 - 5:45 pm
By Michael O'Rielly | Commissioner

Today’s wireless devices are amazing tools that empower people. Our wireless phones, smartphones, tablets, phablets and more allow us to seamlessly communicate, as well as take advantage of all Internet features and functions.  As a result, we have integrated these wireless capabilities into our daily lives. Such increased mobility, however, has led to troubling behavior by some users that deserve everyone’s attention. During my recent trips across our great nation, I was infuriated to hear of continued wireless device misuse. For many reasons, some consumers have yet to see or understand that their risky wireless practices and habits can harm themselves and other people.       

Distracted Driving – The number of people that are killed and injured by distracted driving is staggering. For instance, the National Safety Council estimates that there have been over 810,000 accidents in 2014, or about one every 30 seconds, involving texting on wireless phones by drivers. To put it in more granular form, the Arizona Department of Public Safety found that during a five-month period earlier this year, 10 people died and 380 people were injured because of distracted driving.  And the problem may be getting worse. A 2013 AT&T survey indicated that 49 percent of commuters admitted to texting while driving, up from 40 percent three years ago.

The good news is that a number of efforts are being conducted nationwide to educate consumers, especially our young drivers, about the perils of distracted driving and the devastation that can result. Clearly, more needs to be done but every step, no matter how small, helps. Here are just a few examples of the many laudable efforts from this year alone:

  • In June, a Glacier Park Elementary (WA) student, Avery Estes, submitted the winning poster in a contest that was turned into a billboard to warn of the dangers of distracted driving sponsored by the Washington State Patrol, Maple Valley Police, Tahoma School District and King County Emergency Medical Services.  
  • In May, Colonie Central High School (NY) student, Haylie Szemplinski, created an anti-distracted driving billboard sponsored by the South Colonie Schools Art Department and Lamar Graphics.  This is the third year for the project.   
  • Create Real Impact in CA concluded their contest last week for full-time students between the ages of 14 and 22 to create an original work (e.g., video, music, creative writing and artwork) promoting solutions to distracted driving. 

These are just a few examples of the many efforts by local and state officials and the private sector to educate American consumers about the dangers of distracted driving, especially those involving wireless devices. I welcome input on other ways to get the word out to eliminate wireless device usage while driving.         

Pocket Dialing 911 – Dedicated and hard-working public safety officials who answer and respond to Americans in times of need are being inundated by accidental wireless calls to 911. Commonly referred to as pocket dialing (and sometimes as butt dialing), this occurs when insufficiently secured devices are bumped and automatically dial 911. By putting wireless phones in such places as purses and pockets, consumers can unwittingly dial emergency personnel. While the full scope of the problem is not known, my visits to the New York City and Anchorage Public Service Answering Points suggest that roughly 70 percent of 911 calls are made by wireless devices and 50 percent or more are the result of pocket dialing. If my anecdotal experiences are remotely accurate, it would mean that approximately 84 million 911 calls a year are pocket dials. This is a huge waste of resources, raises the cost of providing 911 services, depletes PSAP morale, and increases the risk that legitimate 911 calls – and first responders – will be delayed.

Clearly any solution shouldn’t make it harder for consumers to dial 911 in times of need, but we must find ways to educate consumers about better securing their wireless devices. I’m confident that if consumers realize that they are putting their friends, neighbors, and loved ones at greater risk, then they will change their practices. One option to consider would be for wireless providers or PSAPs to voluntarily text a consumer whenever 911 is dialed by any active wireless device. If consumers are alerted to the simple fact that they have dialed 911 accidentally, they may take precautions to prevent it from happening again. And such a text would not interfere with emergency services if consumers were facing an actual incident. Alternatively, perhaps there is a way to impose some type of penalty fee on consumers that repeatedly send illegitimate 911 calls to PSAPs.     

Non-Service-Initiated Wireless Phones and 911 – Current FCC rules require that all wireless devices are capable of reaching 911 emergency services even if the devices are no longer associated with a wireless service plan or a wireless provider (known as non-service-initiated, or NSI, devices). In other words, if a wireless phone has battery power, then it must be able to dial 911. When enacted, the rules were intended to allow consumers to reach 911 PSAPs when, for example, wireless service accounts were temporarily suspended for failure to pay or if using spare phones kept in case of emergency.  Unfortunately, the rules have led to certain unintended consequences. In particular, public safety officials have told me that some consumers are inadvertently dialing 911, while others are intentionally prank calling 911. What is most troubling is that, because there is no service provider attached to the wireless device, the location and caller are untraceable. This is extremely disturbing. Whether inadvertent or intentional, the Commission needs to review its existing rules to ensure that they do not enable unwanted 911 calls to emergency personnel. 

In March 2013, the Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau released a Public Notice seeking to refresh the record in this proceeding. In particular, the Bureau also sought additional comment on: (1) the nature and extent of fraudulent 911 calls made from NSI devices; (2) concerns with blocking NSI devices used to make fraudulent 911 calls, and suggestions for making this a more viable option for carriers; and (3) other possible means to stop fraudulent 911 calls from NSI devices. As part of this process, the Commission received comments from NENA: The 9-1-1 Association and other public safety officials seeking to end the FCC’s requirement for NSI devices to be 911-capable. 

To put this problem in perspective, consider some of the filings in the record. For instance, the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board submitted comments that highlighted a statewide survey examining the scope of the problem. To its dismay, the Board determined the problem was “worse than we realized,” and indicated that “one child made 84 calls in one night, which nearly immobilized the call center’s ability to receive actual emergency calls.” In addition, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International, Inc., indicated that, “The information already in the record of this proceeding demonstrates the serious problems posed by such calls, which will only get worse with widespread deployment of wireless IP telephony devices.” 

I am hopeful that the Commission will address this in the near future.     

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The simple truth is that the consumer behavior identified above generally can’t be solved with new laws and regulations. In fact, 44 states already have some form of a ban on text messaging for drivers. Instead, the real key to minimizing the harms caused by such practices is consumer education and outreach. I plan to continue my efforts to spread the word that these practices can’t be tolerated, as well as engage on whether the Commission can take positive steps in a non-regulatory manner to reduce their likelihood.