Safer Cars Or Government Meddling?

by Don Elliott on February 28, 2012

Ray LaHood, U. S. Transportation Secretary, has proposed federal guidelines that “would establish specific recommended criteria for electronic devices installed in vehicles at the time they are manufactured that require visual or manual operation by drivers.”

The guidelines would “encourage automakers to design infotainment systems and devices that are less likely to be a source of distraction.” According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Phase I guidelines include the following:

  • Reduce complexity and task length required by the electronic device
  • Limit electronic device operation to one hand only
  • Limit individual off-road glances required for electronic device operation to no more than two seconds in duration
  • Limit unnecessary visual information in the driver’s field of view
  • Limit the amount of manual inputs required for electronic device operation

Under the proposed guidelines, the driver would not have access to any of the following unless the vehicle is stopped and in park:

  • Visual-manual text messaging
  • Visual-manual internet browsing
  • Visual-manual social media browsing
  • Visual-manual destination entry by address
  • Visual-manual 10-digit phone dialing
  • Displaying to the driver more than 30 characters of text unrelated to the driving task

Under Phase III and Phase IIII, these guidelines would apply to aftermarket electronics like smart phones, computer devices, and portable navigation systems. In addition, NHTSA is encouraging the use of more voice-activated controls.

Will the businesses involved in selling the current array of communication devices voluntarily comply with the proposed guidelines? Will consumers buy the vehicles that are safer, but with less friendly infotainment options? Who will buy a smart phone that won’t work from the driver’s seat?

Few of us would deny that distracted driving is a problem, particularly with younger drivers. NHTSA’s 2009 survey concluded that 16% of highway fatalities and 21% of injury crashes could be attributed to driver distractions. Unfortunately, driver distractions come in all shapes and sizes. The government has yet to legislate the proper way to apply eye make-up while driving. Drivers also continue to eat their Whopper and fries while cruising at 75 miles per hour. And, whoever thought that setting fire to a cigarette and filling the driver’s face with smoke while driving is a good idea?

The technology involved in the electronic devices built into our cars and trucks is changing so rapidly that the government will not be able to legislate quickly enough to support improvements versus distractions. Expecting our police officers to control cell phone usage is unrealistic. It is equally unrealistic to assume that consumers will be able to identify the used car value in a safe car as compared to a well-equipped convenient car.

President Obama has proposed $330 million over the next six years to increase awareness of distracted driving. Hopefully, some of that budget will address driving distractions that are not also incredibly popular, assuring some measure of success!


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