Curb the car dashboard technology, government asks

February 16, 2012 By JOAN LOWY , Associated Press

(AP) -- Auto dashboards are becoming an arcade of text messages, GPS images, phone calls and web surfing, the government says, and it's asking carmakers to curb those distractions when vehicles are moving.

Manufacturers have been loading up higher-end vehicles with an array of built-in gadgets in an effort to tempt car buyers who want to multi-task behind the wheel in today's increasingly connected society. But the technological advances have raised concerns that drivers' attention is being diverted too much from the road.

The on Thursday proposed voluntary guidelines for manufacturers, including a recommendation that they design dashboards so that distracting devices are automatically disabled unless the vehicle is stopped and the transmission is in park.

"We recognize that want to build vehicles that include the tools and conveniences expected by today's American drivers," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "The guidelines we're proposing would offer real-world guidance to automakers to help them develop electronic devices that provide features consumers want without disrupting a driver's attention or sacrificing safety."

Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said carmakers will review the guidelines, which have a 60-day comment period. She noted that the industry has had its own voluntary guidelines since 2002.

"Drivers are going to have conversations, listen to music and read maps while driving, and automakers are helping them do this more safely with integrated hands-free systems that help drivers focus on the road," Bergquist said.

The guidelines, which are directed at passenger cars and sport utility vehicles, would exempt safety devices such electronic-warning systems that alert drivers to potential collisions or lane changes. GPS and other that provide directions would also be permitted while driving, but the safety administration is asking that the systems be designed so that drivers can't manually enter a destination unless the car is in park.

The alternative is for drivers to go back to studying maps while they drive, which is even less safe, Strickland said.

Bergquist, of the carmakers, cautioned about preventing addresses from being entered into GPS devices unless the vehicle is stopped.

"There are often passengers in the car who can enter addresses, so we need to consider that when looking at requiring these technologies to only be used in park," she said. "And if the GPS is disabled when moving, consumers can always bring their own Garmin into the vehicle. It's complicated."

Other dashboard technologies recommended for automatic disabling include text-messaging, Internet browsing, social media browsing, phone dialing and computer screen messages of 30 characters or more that are unrelated to driving.

The guidelines would make exceptions for these devices if they are designed only for use by passengers and can't be accessed or seen by the driver.

Manufacturers are also urged to take steps to make technologies safer that drivers are allowed to use while driving. That includes reducing to two seconds or less the amount of time drivers must divert their eyes from the road to use a device. Devices should also be designed so that drivers don't have to use more than one hand or glance through extraneous information.

The guidelines are a good first step toward reducing driver distractions, said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.

But "the safest thing is for drivers not to use these systems at all - both hands on the wheel and the mind focused solely on driving," she said.

Anne Fleming, senior vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an industry-supported safety research group, said it's good that NHTSA and automakers are working together, but it "will be very hard to measure whether it's reducing distraction and whether it's reducing it enough."

One reason NHTSA decided to pursue voluntary guidelines instead of mandatory rules is that officials wanted to do something quickly, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters in a conference call. The process for writing federal rules often takes years to complete.

The guidelines are also a way "to continue the drumbeat" that distracted driving is a serious safety issue that costs lives, said LaHood, who has been vigorously campaigning on the subject for more than three years.

NHTSA is also considering future guidelines to address portable electronic devices drivers carry with them in cars, including GPS navigation systems, smartphones, and electronic tablets and pads.

In December, the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents, said that texting, emailing or chatting on a cellphone while driving is simply too dangerous to be allowed and urged all states to impose total bans except for emergencies.

That recommendation was inspired by recent deadly crashes, including one in which a teenager sent or received 11 text messages in 11 minutes before an accident. There were an estimated 3,092 deaths in crashes affected by distractions in 2010.

Currently, 35 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, and nine states and the District of Columbia bar hand-held cellphone use. Thirty states ban all cellphone use for beginning drivers. But enforcement is generally not a high priority, and no states ban the use of hands-free devices for all drivers.

Texting while driving increased 50 percent in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, according to NHTSA. A government survey of drivers found that two out of 10 say they've sent messages from behind the wheel - and that spikes much higher among young adults.

AAA said it's important to ensure that dashboard technologies aren't simply making it more convenient and more appealing to drive while distracted.

"Available research evidence is extremely limited and highly inconclusive on the real risks that in-car communications technologies pose to , even when systems are limited to voice-activation only," said AAA CEO and President Robert L. Darbelnet. AAA has a study under way to address that question, he said.

Explore further: Mixed signals on cellphone bans

More information: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration


Related Stories

Mixed signals on cellphone bans

July 13, 2011

It's legal in 41 states for drivers to use hand-held cell phones, and a leading highway safety organization recommends keeping it that way for now.

Gov't set to ban texting by truck, bus drivers

March 31, 2010

(AP) -- The Transportation Department on Wednesday proposed a ban on text messaging at the wheel by interstate truck and bus drivers, following up on its call to reduce distractions that lead to crashes.

Would cellphone ban dial back 'distracted driving'?

December 21, 2011

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) — an independent federal agency responsible for investigating transportation accidents and promoting transportation safety — called for a complete end to cellphone ...

Ford backs bill to ban texting while driving

September 11, 2009

(AP) -- Ford said Thursday it backs federal legislation pressuring states to ban texting while driving in an effort to reduce driver distractions that could lead to accidents.

Recommended for you

Your (social media) votes matter

January 24, 2017

When Tim Weninger conducted two large-scale experiments on Reddit - otherwise known as "the front page of the internet" - back in 2014, the goal was to better understand the ripple effects of malicious voting behavior and ...

Protective wear inspired by fish scales

January 24, 2017

They started with striped bass. Over a two-year period the researchers went through about 50 bass, puncturing or fracturing hundreds of fish scales under the microscope, to try to understand their properties and mechanics ...

'Droneboarding' takes off in Latvia

January 22, 2017

Skirted on all sides by snow-clad pine forests, Latvia's remote Lake Ninieris would be the perfect picture of winter tranquility—were it not for the huge drone buzzing like a swarm of angry bees as it zooms above the solid ...

Singapore 2G switchoff highlights digital divide

January 22, 2017

When Singapore pulls the plug on its 2G mobile phone network this year, thousands of people could be stuck without a signal—digital have-nots left behind by the relentless march of technology.

Making AI systems that see the world as humans do

January 19, 2017

A Northwestern University team developed a new computational model that performs at human levels on a standard intelligence test. This work is an important step toward making artificial intelligence systems that see and understand ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.