FairWarining Reports

U.S. Seeks to Limit Risks From Auto Infotainment

Automakers are engaged in an electronics arms race, packing their new models with cutting-edge technology that makes it easier for drivers to make phone calls, get directions and even check social media sites.

Hoping to limit the risks of electronic multi-tasking, federal transportation officials Thursday unveiled a first-ever set of proposed safety guidelines for infotainment systems.

The guidelines, nearly 180 pages, were announced by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland in a conference call with journalists. But for LaHood, who has crusaded on the issue of driver distraction, the announcement appeared to signal a retreat from past attacks on all forms of electronic multi-tasking.

The potential impact is uncertain. For one thing, the proposed guidelines are just that, and not legal requirements. Moreover, they are similar in key respects to voluntary guidelines set by automakers several years ago, though the federal proposal appears to go further.

According to NHTSA, an estimated 899,000 police-reported crashes in 2010 involved some type of driver distraction. Nearly 3,100 people died in such crashes, a reduction from a 2009 estimate of more than 5,000.

Strickland said some vehicle manufacturers ‘’have already taken steps that are very similar to what we suggest” in the guidelines. Without naming names, he said he has ‘’severe concerns’’ about other companies ‘’that have no strategy at all” for limiting distraction.

The purpose of the guidelines, the agency said, is to reduce the complexity and time required to use electronic devices, so drivers spend more  time with their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

Automakers would be asked to disable infotainment features that ‘’inherently interfere’’ with safe driving when vehicles are in motion. That would mean drivers would have to be parked to watch videos, use their hands and eyes for text messaging , browse the Internet or social media sites, or type destinations into navigation systems.

The guidelines would also adopt the so-called ‘’two second rule’’ that is at the heart of the voluntary  industry guidelines set by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. As FairWarning has reported, it holds that tasks should be simple enough that drivers can perform them without looking away from the road for more than two seconds at a time.

A vehicle traveling at 60 miles per hour covers 176 feet in two seconds.

According to NHTSA, distraction is caused not only by the visual and manual tasks addressed by the proposed guidelines, but by cognitive demands on a driver’s concentration. Yet, in his remarks Thursday, LaHood avoided the latter issue.

NHTSA ”seems to have gone to a lot of trouble to support what automakers are already doing, and backing that up with no enforcement,” said Rob Reynolds, executive director of FocusDriven, a group formed by advocates for victims of cellphone-related crashes.

“The recommendations totally negate the effects of cognitive distractions and the role they play in crashes,” Reynolds said.

Industry officials were taking a victory lap over NHTSA’s close adherence to their guidelines.

“It’s always nice to start your day with a shout-out from the federal government for good work,” said  Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the manufacturers alliance.

In today’s “connected culture,” drivers expect to have access to electronic devices, she said in a written statement. In contrast to portable gadgets, devices integrated into the design of the car help ‘’the driver keep his eyes on the road and his hands on the wheel.”  Critics say that also tempts motorists to spend more time using devices than they would otherwise.

While there are federal safety standards for such components as brakes, headlamps, airbags and door latches, up to now infotainment systems have been completely unregulated.

Officials said that they have chosen to issue guidelines, rather than rules, because ‘’this is an area in which learning continues.” Moreover, their proposal states, “technology is rapidly changing, and a static rule, put in place at this time, may face unforeseen problems and issues as new technologies are developed and introduced.”

This phase of the guidelines covers only visual-manual tasks. A second phase will focus on portable and aftermarket devices such as smartphones and GPS units, and a third on the use of voice controls.

NHTSA will take public comments for 60 days, and plans to hold public hearings in March in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington D.C.

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Myron Levin - FairWarning

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Myron Levin is editor of FairWarning.

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