Ford Focus dashboardThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is asking automakers to voluntarily make new cars safer by limiting the distraction risk for in-car electronic devices, including systems for communication, entertainment, information gathering, navigation, and other functions not required to safely operate a vehicle. The first-of-its-kind guidelines, proposed on Thursday in the Federal Register, are the first in a series of recommendations that NHTSA plans to issue to address the problem of devices requiring use of the driver’s hands or a diversion of the driver’s eyes from the road, according to an NHTSA press release.

Studies show that drivers are at risk of crashing when they take their eyes off the road for as little as two seconds, and the risk worsens as driving speed increases. Matt Richtel writes in The New York Times that although car makers have developed voice-activated versions of infotainment systems, many functions still require hand-on use, and some drivers prefer to use their hands rather than voice commands.

He adds:

The broad guidelines encourage automakers to reduce the complexity of tasks that are not related to driving, including limiting activities that require drivers to take both hands off the wheel or that take more than two seconds to perform. The agency said that the proposals would not levy any penalties against carmakers that fail to comply.

‘The choice between ensuring drivers are safe and including cutting-edge features in cars is false,’ said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who announced the guidelines. ‘We can and we must do both.’

Ian Duncan notes in the Chicago Tribune that car accidents caused by distracted driving have been rising, despite a steady decline in total crash deaths since 2005: “In 2009, 5,474 people were killed as a result of distracted driving, and hundreds of thousands more were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.”

Not everyone believes that voluntary guidelines will be effective enough to curtail accidents caused by distracted driving. Richtel reports that some safety advocates “[…] said the measures should be tougher, could not be enforced because they were voluntary and did nothing to discourage people from talking on their phones while driving or issuing orders to their devices.”

Richtel writes:

‘It’s disappointing,’ said David D. Teater, senior director of transportation initiatives at the National Safety Council, a nonprofit advocacy group. He said that the greatest risk to drivers, by far, was from talking on the phone because people spend so much more time talking than they do using dashboard devices.

Richtel also quotes David Champion Sr., director of Consumer Reports Automotive Test Center: “Automakers are throwing as much stuff up there to look cool or sell vehicles, and that may not be what the customer wants or should be able to have or do. Some of the systems are extremely distracting to use.”

On the other hand, Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told the Associated Press, in an article in The Washington Post, that the industry has had its own guidelines since 2002 and will review the proposed guidelines. “Drivers are going to have conversations, listen to music and read maps while driving, and automakers are helping them do this more safely with integrated hands-free systems that help drivers focus on the road,” Bergquist said.

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said: “We recognize that vehicle manufacturers want to build vehicles that include the tools and conveniences expected by today’s American drivers. The guidelines we’re proposing would offer real-world guidance to automakers to help them develop electronic devices that provide features consumers want without disrupting a driver’s attention or sacrificing safety.”

Here is a video that shows digital dashboard features in the 2013 Dodge Dart:

Image by Robert Couse-Baker, used under its Creative Commons license.