DOT Issues Voluntary Guidelines for Driver-Distracting Electronics Systems

Distracted driving has become one of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s banner issues under secretary Ray LaHood’s tenure, with agencies launching safety programs and awareness campaigns aimed at preventing the practice. Last week, LaHood stepped into new territory by recommending that cars be built to automatically disable potentially distracting electronic devices when in motion.

Ford's Sync system allows integration of many potentially distracting devices into the dashboard console. Image: ##http://usdotblog.typepad.com/.a/6a00e551eea4f588340168e7789a30970c-popup##U.S. DOT##

The new guidelines would seem to be of special comfort to pedestrians, cyclists, and even motorcyclists who have long observed the trend of cars getting safer for their occupants but more dangerous for everyone else. “When automakers employ ‘Infotainment Systems Engineers,’ like Ford does,” says BikePortland’s Jonathan Maus, “that should raise a red flag.”

Automakers are scrambling to find newer and fancier ways for drivers to stay connected behind the wheel, ostensibly to meet consumer demand. At the most recent Consumer Electronics Expo, Mercedes-Benz debuted their in-dash system that supports some Facebook functions even while the car is in motion, in what Maus calls a “disturbing trend”:

Automakers, scared that their vehicles can’t compete with consumers’ growing adoration of smartphones and other devices, now offer all sorts of phone-like conveniences on-board. The result? More distraction, more crashes, more deaths and injuries.

The National Transportation Safety Board had already recommended a set of anti-distracted driving measures, including outlawing the use of any electronic device — hands-on or hands-free — while driving. But the new guidelines, which are voluntary and unenforceable, represent only a cautious next step in making it harder to drive distracted. Gone is the ban on hands-free devices, for example, and the new rules would only apply to built-in electronics, leading some to expect that drivers would find after-market ways to stay connected.

David Coursey, a contributor to Forbes, supports the guidelines but thinks they don’t get to the root of the problem:

We should concentrate on technology that notices when a driver is actually distracted and diverts their attention back to driving. We should also create better user interfaces for automobile electronics that improve driver attention rather than divert it.

For their part, manufacturers say that they have held themselves to “an evolving set of self-imposed electronics guidelines for a decade” according to The Washington Post. Robert Strassburger, vice president of vehicle safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told the Post that “any task behind the wheel that takes more than two seconds to complete or can’t be completed in a couple of brief chunks would be locked out or would be prohibited,” what they call the “two-second rule.”

According to research, two seconds is still too long. NHTSA estimates that a driver whose attention is taken off the road for two seconds becomes twice as likely to be in a crash. Sending or receiving a text message takes 4.6 seconds.

  • Streetsman

    This could work with some financial incentives, say if driving a car that had the feature which automatically disables distracting devices would result in a lower insurance premium, or if states had discounted registration fees for such vehicles.

  • Still don’t understand why these are voluntary.  Shouldn’t distracted driving be illegal?  Isn’t it already in many states?  When will we as a people get serious about reducing the carnage on our streets?

  • Anonymous

    Pod person here, just checking in: PRT.  The personal electronic train has sailed, and squeezing that genie back into the tube is wishful thinking at best.  Not defending distracted driving, but just trying to call a spade like I see them.

  • Anonymous

    Realistically, some cheap electronics is the cheapest and easiest way to add bells and whistles to a product that is otherwise hard to differentiate as cars evolve into a more and more consistent envelope.   Disabling personal electronics in moving vehicles means passengers can’t use them either.  Disabling moving phones means they wouldn’t work on trains or busses? Technical solutions aren’t so simple.  I’m afraid punishing people isn’t super practical or effective either without serious privacy implications.

  • I saw a NYC sanitation enforcement agent almost rear end another car at a red light just yesterday,  while he was attempting to simultaneously drive and look at his lap top computer. 

    There ought’a be a law.  We need much stronger medicine than voluntary guidelines and awareness campaigns.  Even with stricter laws against using hand held devices and increased enforcement, it’s common to see people looking at their phone screens instead of paying attention to their driving. 

  • Timothy W Hilton

    Moving at 35 miles per hour, a car covers 102 feet in two seconds.  As a bike commuter, it terrifies me to read that “Robert Strassburger, vice president of vehicle safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers” believes that the driver of the car 100 feet behind me can safely pass me without looking up from the dashboard.

  • Michael S.

    The whole point of such on-board systems is to make activities that drivers would otherwise perform with their iPhones–music selection, phone calls, and text messaging–less distracting. It’s much safer to have the lady inside the dashboard read your texts, or select a Pandora station by voice, than to do it on a 3.5″ touchscreen.

  • Xequar

    Speaking as a cyclist that’s been hit by an SUV that ran a red light at 40 miles per hour, I would rather have a person checking Facebook or texts by using a voice interface built into the car than have them looking at small font on an iPhone.  Here’s the thing-people are going to use their electronics whether the car offers infotainment systems or not.  Shaming them hasn’t worked.  Scaring them hasn’t worked.  Making texting while driving illegal hasn’t worked (even the IIHS data show no significant change in accident rates before and after texting ban laws).  

    So what’s left then?  If they’re going to do it anyway, let’s try to at least mitigate the damage from it, rather than whining and crying that they’re doing it.  

  • The only thing I can think of is to roll back crash regulations. Right now US and EU regulations require drivers be able to drive into a concrete wall at 35 MPH (60 km/h), open the doors, and walk away from the wreck. A wreck involving pedestrians or cyclists at that speed would have a less than 50% chance of survival, and 10% chance of walking away. We need to make driving a car as dangerous as riding a bike. If you do that, people will stop texting, talking on the phone, playing Facebook games…

  • Joe R.

    @openid-43672:disqus A spike in the center of the steering wheel should do the trick.

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  • We really can’t help it but car industry is really going forward on technology based system. No matter what minority thinks of, there is greater market for this trend. Two second rule is enough for city limits but not on highways.
     http://www.cpr-algonquin.com

  • Scott

    This technology is as useless as automatic seat adjusters. It makes the car much more expensive. For inexperienced teen drivers, just let them crash. Don’t be stupid enough to let them crash a new car. As much as a commercial says buy them a new car, just don’t. The reason they urge you is because you’ll buy another new one later.

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