Feds Propose Distracted-Driving Guidelines to Automakers

Citing more than 3,000 highway deaths from distracted driving in 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed a set of distracted-driving guidelines today. The auto industry and the public will have 60 days to comment on the proposal — the first ever regarding distracted driving — with hearings in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will issue final guidelines thereafter.

In a conference call to reporters this morning, NHTSA administrator David Strickland laid out a handful of guidelines to reduce the "complexity and amount of time required" for in-car systems:

  • Allow usage with one hand, leaving the other on the steering wheel
  • Limit how long drivers' eyes are off the road to two seconds or less
  • Limit "unnecessary visual information" in the driver's field of view
  • Limit the number of manual inputs required for various operations
Systems should not allow manual text messaging, internet browsing, social media, navigation destination entries, 10-digit phone dialing or displaying 30 or more characters of text "unrelated to the driving task" while the car is moving, NHTSA said.

The organization is considering additional guidelines to address aftermarket devices and personal electronics, including tablets and smartphones brought into the vehicle, as well as voice-recognition systems.

Most factory navigation systems lock out destination entries on the move, but some of today's other proposals could rankle automakers. Systems across the industry — from Ford to Audi — pack a lot of information into screens adjacent to the gauges, certainly in the driver's field of view. A lot of that content, like song titles or radio station info, is peripheral to driving. Glance at a dashboard multimedia screen and much of that info tops 30 characters, especially if the system displays album titles and artist names. Consider a typical song: say, "Sympathy for the Devil" off The Rolling Stones' "Beggars Banquet." That's more than 50 characters.

"While these devices may offer consumers new tools and features, President Barack Obama's administration is urging automakers to ensure that these devices don't also divert a driver's eyes and hands away from his or her primary responsibility," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters. But LaHood wouldn't go as far as to endorse the National Traffic Safety Board's call last December for banning all cellphones in cars, even those with aftermarket hands-free devices.

"We're happy when anyone gets on the [distracted-driving] bandwagon — the more the merrier," LaHood said, but "before we go too much further, I want to see the studies that we're doing on the cognitive distractions caused by some of these devices in cars."

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Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price.  Email Kelsey