NHTSA favors disabling texting, Web browsing
Published on April 26, 2013
By Gabe Nelson, Crain News Service
WASHINGTON (April 26, 2013) — Federal regulators, moving to curb distracted driving, issued final voluntary safety guidelines today that would disable certain in-vehicle functions such as manual texting, Web browsing and video phoning while driving.
Auto makers should do more to keep drivers' eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, U.S. auto regulators said as they released the latest guidelines meant to cut down on crashes caused by the use of electronic devices in cars.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) specifically recommended disabling several operations unless a vehicle is stopped and in park:
• Manual text entry for the purposes of text messaging and internet browsing;
• Video-based entertainment and communications such as video phoning or video conferencing; and
• Displaying certain types of text, including text messages, Web pages, and social-media content.
The final guidelines issued by NHTSA are voluntary, not binding, for the industry. Still, they pose a challenge for car companies that have invested heavily in electronics and software to let drivers perform more and more tasks from behind the wheel.
'The safety we all need'
"There's no doubt that drivers appreciate these technologies, but we've got an obligation to balance the innovations consumers want with the safety we all need," outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters during a phone call as NHTSA announced the standards.
Under the new guidelines—which NHTSA first proposed in February 2012—the agency recommends limiting the amount of time a driver must take their eyes off the road to perform a single task to 2 seconds.
And drivers would be limited to six screen touches in 12 seconds to perform a task, reducing the time they can take their eyes off the road. Those sorts of tasks could include changing the radio station, adjusting temperature or answering a phone call using a car's built-in hands-free software.
That is less than the 20 seconds allowed by the voluntary industry guidelines established by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the largest trade group for the industry in the U.S.
Car companies have acknowledged the risk posed by distracted driving, though they criticized some aspects of NHTSA's proposal.
Built-in vs. cell phones
As the agency mulled its proposal, industry lobbyists argued that overly restrictive limits for built-in devices could make auto makers' new built-in features less useful and cause drivers to use the same functions on mobile devices instead.
"Portable phones and navigation devices are everywhere, and consumers are using these devices in their vehicles," the Alliance said in a statement that praised NHTSA for signaling the importance of hands-free technology. "Pairing mobile phones with our built-in systems designed for driving is a top priority."
NHTSA has said that after finishing its guidelines for in-car equipment, it intends to set guidelines for portable devices and for voice-activated features.
Auto makers were measured today in their response to the final rules, saying they needed time to review the final NHTSA guidelines.
"Our members have already factored in many of the recommendations in the draft NHTSA guidelines for in-vehicle devices in their internal design processes," said Michael Stanton, president of the Association of Global Auto makers, which includes Toyota, Honda and Hyundai, in a statement.
The final guidelines that the agency released today will be phased in over three years, allowing auto makers to retool electronic navigation and entertainment systems in order to comply.
It may be the last major initiative on auto safety by Mr. LaHood, who has said he will step down once a replacement can be confirmed. He has made the campaign against distracted driving one of his signature issues, pushing for bans on handheld cell phone use in all 50 states.
The agency will consider including the distraction guidelines in its New Car Assessment Program, which is used to devise the government's five-star safety ratings system for light vehicles, Strickland told reporters.
Such a move would also give auto makers an incentive to comply with the guidelines.
The agency recently announced that it will take comment on a number of changes to the ratings.
According to NHTSA data, 3,331 people died in distracted-driving accidents in 2011, up from 3,092 in 2010. Another 387,000 people were injured in 2011 in crashes involving a distracted driver, vs. 416,000 in 2010.
Auto makers persuaded NHTSA to make a number of changes to its proposal.
General Motors Co. and other companies had criticized certain guidelines as too specific. In comments submitted to NHTSA in October, GM said that certain requirements, such as a cap of 30 characters on messages displayed to drivers, would be "very limiting and not necessary."
In the final rule, NHTSA scrapped the 30-character limit. Instead, the agency recommended that car companies disable the ability to display any amount of text from books, periodicals or web pages while a car is moving, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland told reporters.
Comments from auto makers also said the proposed guidelines could discourage auto makers from offering helpful navigation features.
The agency's suggested limits on "dynamic displays" were meant to prevent vehicle displays from showing videos, but GM and other car companies contended they could block the use of dynamic maps with the ability to show, for instance, that a traffic jam is ahead.
Mr. Strickland told reporters the agency decided those types of features were acceptable.
The latest research
Along with the new guidelines, NHTSA released research showing that the use of a handheld cell phone or another handheld device may increase the risk of a crash.
Drivers in the study, which was based on data collected in 2010 by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, talked on a cell phone about 10.6 percent of the time the vehicle was in operation. They also text messaged frequently, taking their eyes off the road for an average of 23.3 seconds total each time.
The act of speaking on a cell phone did not increase the risk of a crash or a near-crash, but text messaging doubled the risk. And other tasks involved in a phone call—such as finding a ringing phone, looking up a contact or dialing a number—tripled the risk of a crash or a close call, the study found.
Overall, because of these tasks, using a handheld phone increased the risk of a crash by about 73 percent, the researchers found.
The researchers did not find an increased risk from making phone calls using a hands-free device or a car's built-in interface, but they warned that callers often had to look away from the road and take hands off the steering wheel to use such devices.
The study is a consolation for auto makers, since it reinforces that NHTSA researchers see hands-free devices, including those built into cars, as safer than hand-held cell phones.