NHTSA Pushes Drivers to Disconnect From Devices in Vehicles

Texting While Driving
Photoillustration by Michael Krasowitz

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is studying ways to encourage new drivers to disconnect from mobile devices and the Internet while operating vehicles, Administrator David Strickland said.

“I’m not in the business of helping people Tweet better, I’m not in the business of helping people post to Facebook better,” Strickland said at an automotive technology conference today in Novi, Michigan. “My job is to make sure we keep people safe behind the wheel.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose department oversees NHTSA, has said drivers are distracted by vehicle information and entertainment systems such as Ford Motor Co.’s Sync and General Motors Co.’s OnStar. The Transportation Department began developing guidelines for in-vehicle systems and aims to publish them this fall, Strickland said today.

“I’m not going to deny the fact that people want these things,” Strickland said. “They do. Especially the generation behind us. They’re used to being connected 24 hours a day.”

The agency is looking for ways to “impart to these future drivers that it’s OK to not be connected when you’re operating a car,” he said.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, whose members include GM, Ford, Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz USA and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s BMW Group, is “committed to working with Secretary LaHood, and others, to keep people safe while driving,” said Wade Newton, a spokesman.

Auto Industry’s Challenge

“The challenge we must all work together on is allowing drivers to do the things we know they’re going to do anyway, in a way that makes it possible for them to still focus on the road,” Newton, whose group is based in Washington, said in an e-mail.

GM’s OnStar, which has more than 6 million subscribers, has been testing applications that would let users make audio updates to their Facebook pages and have messages from the social-media site read to them while driving. The system already provides crash-notification services as well as directions and information such as vehicle diagnostics.

Ford has been selling Sync, based on Microsoft Corp. technology, since the 2008 model year. Ford added features such as touch-command controls and voice-activated climate control last year and plans to add social networking, Web browsing and thumb controls similar to those on Apple Inc.’s iPod to 80 percent of its models by 2015.

BMW and Mercedes-Benz also have added Internet and smartphone access this year to vehicles such as BMW’s 5-series sedan and the Mercedes-Benz SLK roadster.

“A car is not a mobile device -- a car is a car,” Strickland said. “We will not take a backseat while new telematics and infotainment systems are introduced. There is too much potential for distraction of drivers.”

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