Automakers Urged to Simplify Behind-the-Wheel Technology

U.S. regulators today issued guidelines for automakers intended to limit distractions from the use of Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. through in-vehicle infotainment systems.

The Transportation Department, in non-binding guidelines, asked automakers to bar the use of social media sites and Internet browsing when a vehicle is moving. Automakers are also urged to design navigation and other screen-based systems so that drivers don’t need to take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds to select an option, or for a total of 12 seconds to complete an entire task such as entering an address.

“We’ve already made good progress in getting cellphones out of peoples’ hands when they’re behind the wheel,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said today on a conference call with reporters. “Cellphones aren’t the only distractions.”

The guidelines may be LaHood’s last action on distracted driving, a phrase he put into the American lexicon after becoming transportation secretary in 2009. LaHood announced in January he plans to step down after a successor is named.

Automakers complained about the draft guidelines issued last year, saying limiting the use of in-vehicle technology would cause drivers to revert to using more dangerous handheld devices. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, whose members include General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp., said its own guidelines were less restrictive.

Handheld Devices

The alliance, based in Washington, said it’s concerned that the government is only addressing equipment installed in vehicles and that will lead to more use of handheld phones and other devices.

“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.”

The government guidelines say cars should be stopped and in park to use things like social media while the industry version allows use while driving at low speeds. NHTSA, in the final version, clarified that scrolling displays of maps on navigation systems are allowed after automakers complained that they’d be prohibited under the first draft.

Safety Incentives

The guidelines, which apply only to equipment installed in new vehicles, start in three years. The agency may eventually use the guidelines to give incentives in its vehicle safety ratings, which are being redesigned, National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland said on the call.

A study released today, funded with a Transportation Department grant, found that hands-free texting distracted drivers just as much as messaging with a device in one’s hands. Participants in the study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute drove on a closed course while typing text messages with their hands and sending them hands-free using Apple Inc.’s Siri and Vlingo system on Google Inc.’s Android phones.

Both methods slowed driver reaction times nearly two times what they’d be when not texting, the study found, with drivers taking longer to complete a text when speaking than when manually typing.

NHTSA, part of the Transportation Department, on April 5 said about 660,000 drivers in the U.S. are using mobile phones or other handheld electronic devices while driving at any time. Citing data it collects, the agency said that in 2011 more than 3,300 deaths and more than 387,000 injuries in the U.S. were linked to distracted driving.

LaHood last June said his agency might also draft guidelines for mobile devices and voice-activated controls in cars.

Texting while flying was linked to a commercial aviation crash for the first time earlier this month when the National Transportation Safety Board released its findings on the causes of a 2011 medical-helicopter flight crash in Missouri.

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