April 24, 2013 at 11:47 AM ET
Hoping to prevent distracted driving – blamed for causing more than 10 percent of all U.S. highway fatalities – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released voluntary guidelines Tuesday to keep drivers’ eyes on the road rather than on smartphones and in-car devices displaying text messages and Web content.
The guidelines are meant to limit how long drivers look away from the road even when doing mundane tasks like changing radio stations or checking on-board navigation directions. The proposal appears to take particular aim at text messaging and posting to social media sites like Facebook.
Among the proposals, NHTSA would like to see the industry to find ways to block motorists from texting while behind the wheel.
The highway administration argues that motorists should not take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds at a time – and since some functions require paging through multiple screens, no task should take more than 12 seconds, according to the nation’s top auto safety regulators.
"These guidelines recognize that today's drivers appreciate technology, while providing automakers with a way to balance the innovation consumers want with the safety we all need," said Ray LaHood, Secretary of the Department of Transportation.
LaHood has often described the problem of distracted driving as an “epidemic.” The NHTSA reports that the number of crashes involving distracted driver has increased to 3,331 in 2011, up from 3,092 the year before.
The new proposals have been well received so far.
“The problem isn’t limited to drivers who text on their smartphones,” said Ellen Bloom, the senior director of Federal Policy for Consumers Union. “There’s a serious concern about in-dash controls that may be very distracting when you’re behind the wheel. These guidelines are aimed at getting automakers to focus on safer tools in the dash that take less of your attention away from the road.”
Meanwhile, the industry trade group the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers issued a statement saying that "NHTSA and automakers share the same goal: Drivers need to keep their eyes on the road, hands on the wheel and connect their mobile phones to the built-in car systems.”
Nonetheless, the auto industry cautions that it should not take the heat for a problem that isn’t limited to smartphones and hard-to-use navigation systems. Indeed, the Erie Insurance Group released a study earlier this month finding that 62 percent of distracted-driving accidents resulting in fatalities were the result of drivers daydreaming or “being lost in thought.”
Only 12 percent were the result of texting or some other form of cellphone use – a number lower than the number of fatal accidents resulting from a combination of other factors including rubbernecking, being distracted by children, pets or other vehicle occupants, or eating or drinking while driving.
The new voluntary guidelines are likely to be taken seriously by automakers as they could still be cited by plaintiff attorneys who take on a manufacturer in a wrongful death or injury lawsuit.
The guidelines might seem simple but could be difficult to implement, especially any effort to block a driver from using a smartphone to make a handheld call or text. That would likely run into public opposition if passengers also would be barred from using smartphones, industry observers caution.
On the other hand, proponents of a distracted driving crackdown question whether NHTSA’s proposal goes far enough. They question whether any ban should be limited to the use of handheld devices and point to a new study by the Texas Transportation Institute that finds little difference between hand-held texting and voice-to-text systems.
Manufacturers have been investing heavily in new on-board voice-controlled systems and are likely to challenge those findings.
A proposal made the National Transportation Safety Board would go significantly further than the NHTSA guidelines. It would ban virtually all forms of calling by drivers and even limit what can be shown on a navigation system’s display.
Curiously, while data show a rise in deaths due to distracted driving, another recent study finds a potentially upbeat development. It shows that as the result of peer pressure, teens are cutting back on texting and calling behind the wheel -- at least when there's someone else in the vehicle.
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