Dis­tracted driv­ing on the line

In­dus­try, gov­ern­ment spar over rules on dis­abling de­vices

The Washington Times Daily - - Politics - BY JOAN LOWY

Driv­ers will switch from us­ing dis­tract­ing de­vices built into car dash­boards to us­ing even more dis­tract­ing hand-held de­vices un­less the fed­eral gov­ern­ment ad­dresses both is­sues at the same time, au­tomak­ers warned Mon­day.

Vol­un­tary guide­lines pro­posed last month by the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion call for au­tomak­ers to in­clude tech­nol­ogy in cars that au­to­mat­i­cally dis­ables built-in de­vices for phone call­ing, tex­ting, email­ing, Web surf­ing and other dis­tract­ing ac­tiv­i­ties un­less the car is parked. GPS nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems still would work, but driv­ers would only be able to en­ter ad­dresses when the ve­hi­cle is sta­tion­ary.

The pro­posal is the first of three sets of guide­lines the agency is work­ing on to limit driver dis­trac­tions. A sec­ond pro­posal on tech­nolo­gies that would limit driv­ers’ use of hand-held de­vices while the car is in mo­tion is ten­ta­tively sched­uled to be un­veiled next year. The third pro­posal guide­lines on how au­tomak­ers can use voice-ac­ti­va­tion sys­tems to re­duce the num­ber of times driv­ers need to press buttons or touch screens is ex­pected a year af­ter that.

But car­mak­ers and oth­ers urged NHTSA of­fi­cials at a public hear­ing to speed up work on the sec­ond and third phases. Con­sumers want to make phone calls, get di­rec­tions and do dozens of other things while driv­ing, and they will find a way to do it, car­mak­ers said.

Rob Strass­burger, the Al­liance of Au­to­mo­bile Man­u­fac­tur­ers’ vice pres­i­dent for safety, com­pared re­strict­ing dash­board de­vices but not hand-held ones to build­ing a fence around three sides of a yard while leav­ing the fourth side open.

“Con­sumers have op­tions,” he said. “If the use of one op­tion is cur­tailed, driv­ers will migrate quickly to oth­ers that are not re­stricted.”

A va­ri­ety of tech­nolo­gies al­ready are avail­able that au­tomak­ers could put in cars to block driv­ers’ use of hand-held de­vices, but the tech­nolo­gies ap­pear to have un­in­tended con­se­quences, David Strick­land, NHTSA’S ad­min­is­tra­tor, said. The gov­ern­ment wants to make sure the de­vices don’t block driv­ers’ ac­cess to elec­tronic safety de­vices in cars that help them drive, he said.

Also, some block­ing de­vices can hin­der the use of wire­less de­vices be­long­ing to peo­ple nearby or in other cars, he said.

Dash­boards that al­low driv­ers to syn­chro­nize their wire­less de­vices with builtin tech­nol­ogy are an­other so­lu­tion, man­u­fac­tur­ers said. By sync­ing de­vices, driv­ers can choose songs or get di­rec­tions us­ing larger touch screens that are sit­u­ated on dash­boards within a driv­ers’ line of sight, rather than hav­ing to look down at smaller screens on de­vices held in their laps, they said.

Marc-an­thony Sig­norino, gen­eral coun­sel for the Dis­tracted Driv­ing Safety Al­liance, an in­dus­try-sup­ported group that in­cludes elec­tron­ics man­u­fac­tur­ers, said the tech­nol­ogy ex­ists to en­able vir­tu­ally any dash­board de­vice to be ac­ti­vated by voice, al­low­ing driv­ers to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

“With the touch of one but­ton and just my voice, I can ask my phone to find me good bar­be­cue via Yelp, make a reser­va­tion on Open Ta­ble and send in­vites to my friends, all co­or­di­nated on my cal­en­dar via Out­look,” Mr. Sig­norino said. “That’s com­ing to your car very soon. And that’s a good thing.”

But re­searchers say stud­ies show hands­free de­vices can be just as dis­tract­ing as hand-held de­vices be­cause what mat­ters is where the driv­ers’ at­ten­tion is fo­cused — not what their hands are do­ing — that mat­ters. The NHTSA es­ti­mates there were 3,092 deaths in crashes af­fected by driver dis­trac­tions in 2010.

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