NHTSA Proposes Distracted Driving Guidelines for Automakers


Drivers told NHTSA in a previous research project that they that they rarely consider traffic situations when deciding when to use their phone.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced today groundbreaking federal guidelines for automakers to limit the ‘distraction risk’ caused by the growing number of in-vehicle electronic devices. The new distracted driving design recommendations appeared to catch automakers off guard since they did not have an immediate response ready, and when they did respond it was with a mild statement promising to look at the proposal.

Moreover, NHTSA said this was only the first of a series of proposed distracted driving design practices that manufacturers can use to ensure the systems or devices in their vehicles are less likely to distract drivers and cause accidents. The intent is to “limit tasks not directly relevant to safely operating the vehicle, or cause undue distraction by engaging the driver’s eyes or hands for more than a very limited duration while driving.”

The guidelines will be developed in three phases. The first phase announced today covers the “visual-manual interfaces” of devices installed in vehicles. The second phase will include portable and aftermarket devices. The third phase will expand the guidelines to include auditory-vocal commands and interfaces.

While not a formal regulation (yet?), the voluntary design standards from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration bring additional pressure on automakers to reform automotive electronics. Thus far automakers have ignored with impunity the deadly results from the consequences of the growing use of an increasing array of in-vehicle electronic devices and screens. Even if they don’t become regulations, the guidelines will make it difficult for consumer organizations – say Consumer Reports – to recommend vehicles that don’t meet them. And you can be sure that NHTSA will ultimately incorporate them into its own safety ratings.

Distracted driving is arguably the biggest auto safety threat the federal agency faces. Almost 5,500 people died and half a million more were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2009, representing 16% of overall U.S. traffic fatalities in 2009. NHTSA said data show that 17% – or an estimated 899,000 – of all police-reported crashes reportedly involved some type of driver distraction in 2010. Of those 899,000 crashes, distraction by a device/control integral to the vehicle was reported in 26,000 crashes, or 3% of the distraction-related police-reported crashes. At any given moment during the daylight hours, more than 800,000 vehicles are being driven by someone using a hand-held cell phone, according to NHTSA.

The NHTSA move appears to be a compromise between the clearly stated safety mission of the agency and the political difficulties of taking on wealthy corporations, the legislators who benefit from corporate campaign contributions, as well as affluent voters who want to be connected while driving regardless of the negative public safety consequences of doing so. Simply put a regulation would  likely result in  fierce lobbying and regulatory  battles. Nonetheless, it was a deft move, which will ultimately have far ranging implications for the way cars are designed and what drivers are permitted to do.

NHTSA said it did not issue a mandatory Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) for three principal reasons.

  • First, this is an area in which learning continues, and more research is both necessary and important.
  • Second, technology is changing rapidly, and a static rule at this time, may face unforeseen problems and issues as new technologies are developed and introduced.
  • Third, available data are not sufficient at this time to permit accurate estimation of the benefits and costs of a mandatory rule in this area.

NHTSA also said it has a “firm belief that there are safety benefits to be gained by limiting and reducing driver distraction due to integrated electronic devices is sufficient reason for issuing the NHTSA Guidelines, but in order to issue a rule, we need a defensible estimate of the magnitude of such benefits and the corresponding costs.”

The proposed Phase I distraction guidelines include recommendations to:

  • Reduce complexity and task length required by the device;
  • Limit device operation to one hand only (leaving the other hand to remain on the steering wheel to control the vehicle);
  • Limit individual off-road glances required for device operation to no more than two seconds in duration;
  • Limit unnecessary visual information in the driver’s field of view;
  • Limit the amount of manual inputs required for device operation.

The proposed guidelines also recommend the disabling of the following operations by in-vehicle electronic devices while driving, unless the devices are intended for use by passengers and cannot reasonably be accessed or seen by the driver, or unless the vehicle is stopped and the transmission shift lever is in park.

  • Visual-manual text messaging;
  • Visual-manual internet browsing;
  • Visual-manual social media browsing;
  • Visual-manual navigation system destination entry by address;
  • Visual-manual 10-digit phone dialing;
  • Displaying to the driver more than 30 characters of text unrelated to the driving task.

About Ken Zino

Ken Zino is an auto industry veteran with global experience in print, broadcast and electronic media. He has auto testing, marketing, public relations and communications expertise garnered while working in Asia, Europe and the U.S.
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