Pretty Please: U.S. DOT Asks Carmakers to Limit Onboard Distractions

Is two seconds enough time for this guy to avoid hitting the child in front of his car? Image: ## Lane##

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s signature issue has been distracted driving. He’s spent the last four years amplifying the heartbreaking voices of those who have suffered the consequences of this highly dangerous habit. The stories of the needless loss of so many people, especially children and teens, are tragic.

Clearly, it’s time to take decisive action to stop distracted driving.

But apparently it’s not clear to everyone. Automakers have only upped the distraction ante, putting touch screens in their cars with more and more features — GPS, fuel efficiency monitoring, audio and climate controls, limitless apps, and finally, social media. How did we ever live without making dinner reservations or updating our Facebook status while driving?

And how do our anti-distraction heroes at U.S. DOT respond? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is issuing a short list of voluntary guidelines they’re asking carmakers to adopt, to discourage “the introduction of excessively distracting devices in vehicles.”

Remember the good old days, when drivers' only distractions were fiddling with the radio dial and telling kids they weren't there yet? Photo: ## Lane##

In LaHood’s words, they include:

  • Limiting — to 2 seconds at a time and 12 seconds total — the time drivers must take their eyes off the road to operate in-car technology;
  • Disabling texting, social media, and web browsing features unless a vehicle is stopped and in park; and
  • Disabling video-based calling and conferencing unless a vehicle is stopped and in park.

According to, a project of U.S. DOT, the 4.6 seconds it takes to send or read a text message is long enough to drive the length of entire football field at 55 mph, and looking at your phone is like driving that football field blindfolded. “It’s extraordinarily dangerous,” the website says. But NHTSA’s two second rule still accepts the idea of drivers speeding down almost half a football field blindfolded.

These guidelines only apply to onboard devices, of course, since automakers have no control over your cell phone.

LaHood says he “hopes” the automakers will join him in embracing the voluntary guidelines, which are based on a NHTSA study [PDF] that found that talking on the phone — whether handheld, hands-free or on-board — didn’t make driving more dangerous, unless drivers were also doing “visual-manual” tasks like texting or pretty much anything else we do with our phones. Even then, it singled out handhelds as more dangerous than the others.

That contradicts research by the National Safety Council that found that “driving while using hands-free cell phones is risky behavior.” The Council concluded that the multitasking required to use a cell phone takes attention away from the road, causing drivers to “‘look at’ but not ‘see’ up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment.” They call it “inattention blindness.”

It also contradicts a 2011 recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board that all states ban cell phone use, even on hands-free devices, while driving. NTSB agreed with Focus Driven, a DOT-supported organization that says, “Studies show hands-free devices provide no safety benefit.” Meanwhile, Carnegie Mellon researchers found that people talking on the phone drive the way people drive when they’re drunk.

In his blog post, LaHood says he believes automakers “will ultimately adopt these guidelines” that only begin to address the dangers posed by distracted driving. Since DOT has chosen to recommend, rather than regulate, we should all hope he’s right.

6 thoughts on Pretty Please: U.S. DOT Asks Carmakers to Limit Onboard Distractions

  1. If it were up to me, the screen would be mounted on the right side of the glove box. Optionally, it could swing round to allow the driver to operate it, but it would be locked while driving.

  2. 2 seconds is too long. In urban areas when driving next to parked cars and having pedestrians jay walking or walking out to get into a car, or in suburban areas with kids running, 2 seconds is the difference between getting stopped and running someone over. Buttons one can feel create the conditions where someone can change something without looking, like the radio, and should be applied to everything like the navigation system. Buttons be unique in shape so one can feel it and know what they’re touching.

    Also contributing to confusion are a couple other things… I think all turn signals especially at the back of a vehicle should always be yellow (or blue/green) and not red as I’ve seen on some models, and, at a minimum size, understanding that a red blinker on a red background can be misinterpreted as a brake light or simply lost in all the red. Also, rear lights must have a plastic cover that is also red/yellow and not clear which make back lights look like head lights when not lit up and thus make it look like a vehicle is facing you on the wrong side of the road (as when pulling up to a red light).

    Finally, to avoid confusion and because of advances in LED technology, we need to redesign the Red Stop Light to be a different size and shape compared to yellow and green lights to help prevent red light running. A good percentage of people who are running reds think they have a green light. Because they think they have a green light they tend to travel at normal road speeds and not look out for cross traffic, making them especially dangerous. While ‘outside of the vehicle’ this idea is to counteract distracted driving. Existing red lights could be retrofitted with ‘ear muff like’ LED lights to achieve this and save money.

  3. Meanwhile in San Francisco, “innovation” means putting hundreds of more untrained taxidrivers on the streets, chasing down fares on their “smart” phones… Way to go, Innovation!

  4. That would made GPS-navigation impossible. Or it would have to allow GPS navigation but not other uses.

  5. Not true. You just wouldn’t be able to enter new destinations and commands while driving.

  6. I agree with these recommendations I didn’t even realize some of these things existed! Video-based conferencing in your car?! Yikes!

    But ultimately, it comes down to people being responsible while they’re driving. Yes, taking away these distractions will help, but people need to understand that just because these tools are available doesn’t mean they should. (And yes, I realize that’s never really going to happen). So many people just drive down the road, oblivious to everything but themselves, being a danger. People need to just pay attention.

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