Head down, distraction up, courtesy Fastlane

“Head down, distraction up,” courtesy FastLane.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is asking carmakers to voluntarily comply with guidelines to disable texting, social media, and Web-browsing features in the in-vehicle electronics systems to make the roads safer, as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood writes on his blog, FastLane. The department’s voluntary guidelines, issued on Tuesday, also ask automakers to disable video-based calling and conferencing unless a vehicle is stopped and in park, and to limit the time drivers need to take their eyes off the road to operate in-car technology to two seconds at a time, and 12 seconds total.

LaHood writes:

These are common sense guidelines. And they’re backed up by research and analysis from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In fact, a new naturalistic driving study NHTSA is releasing today shows that visual and manual tasks behind the wheel triple the risk of getting into a crash.

The bottom line is this: We don’t have to choose between providing consumers with the technology they want and keeping folks safe. We can — and must — do both.

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland told reporters in a conference call that the agency might eventually use the guidelines to give incentives in vehicle safety ratings, writes Angela Greiling Keane for Bloomberg. She notes that the new guidelines apply only to equipment installed in new vehicles, and would become effective in three years.

Keane writes that The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), an industry group whose members include GM and Toyota, said it is concerned that the government is addressing only equipment installed in vehicles, which “will lead to more use of handheld phones and other devices.”

She quotes AAM spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist:

‘NHTSA data indicate that 98 percent of distraction-related accidents are due to factors other than use of the built-in system,’ Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman, said today in an e-mailed statement. ‘We urge NHTSA to move quickly with a more comprehensive approach including mobile devices.’

A DOT-funded study released yesterday found that hands-free texting was as distracting to drivers as texting while holding a device, Keane writes. Both methods slow drivers’ reaction times by nearly two times what they would be had they not been texting, with drivers taking longer to complete a text when speaking than when typing onto a device, Keane writes. She adds that last June LaHood said the DOT might also draft guidelines for mobile devices and voice-activated controls in vehicles.

Keane notes that the recently issued guidelines could be LaHood’s last action on distracted driving, “a phrase he put into the American lexicon after becoming transportation secretary in 2009.” The Secretary announced in January he plans to step down after a successor is named.

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