On the heels of some alarming reports about spiking traffic fatalities, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced new guidelines Wednesday on ways to make hand-held devices like smartphones less distracting for drivers.
The guidelines, which are entirely voluntary, call for devices that are capable of easily pairing with cars’ in-vehicle infotainment systems as well as a “driver’s mode.” When paired with the infotainment system or in driver’s mode, the devices would lock out certain functions like video, typing texts or internet browsing. The idea is to have drivers help themselves by voluntarily blocking some common behaviors that have proven deadly.
“The problem of distracted driving has grown into an epidemic,” said William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports. “These guidelines could help stem the increase in traffic deaths that we’ve seen in the last two years. But there also needs to be a much broader effort with everyone—automakers, tech companies, regulators, and consumers—playing a role.”
Highway fatality statistics have become increasingly grim in recent years. Overall, 35,092 people died in traffic crashes in 2015, a 7.2 percent increase over 2014—the biggest one-year jump since 1966. Projections for 2016 are even higher.
Distractions in the form of smartphones are an element of this increase. NHTSA estimates about 10 percent of last year’s fatalities involved some form of distraction, and that portable devices like cell phones are “often the main distraction for drivers involved in crashes.” The agency estimated about 400 deaths directly tied to cell phone use in 2014.
Texting, in particular, is “by far the most alarming distraction,” according to NHTSA, because it requires visual, manual, and cognitive attention from the driver.
“With driver distraction one of the factors behind the rise of traffic fatalities, we are committed to working with the industry to ensure that mobile devices are designed to keep drivers’ eyes where they belong—on the road,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said in a statement Wednesday.
The agency issued guidelines rather than enforceable regulations as a way to respond to emerging technology faster. While they’re voluntary, past guidelines have gained wide industry acceptance, and some companies welcome the agency’s input as a guide for design decisions.
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But the Consumer Technology Association, which represents the companies that make portable, electronic devices like cell phones, described the action as “disturbing” and an attempt to to “push out highly questionable, de facto regulations” before the new administration takes office.
“Rather than focus on devices which could reduce drunk driving, they have chosen to exceed their actual authority and regulate almost every portable device,” said Gary Shapiro, CTA president and CEO. ”This regulatory overreach could thwart the innovative solutions and technologies that help drivers make safer decisions from ever coming to market.”
The Association of Global Automakers, a trade group representing Toyota, Honda, Nissan and other car companies, cautioned that the agency action may not present “sufficient flexibility” in an environment where technology is evolving as rapidly as it is.
“Government and industry stakeholders should continue to explore holistic, flexible, and technology-neutral approaches to address driver inattention,” said John Bozzella, president and CEO of Global Automakers.
NHTSA is accepting public comments on the guidelines for the next 60 days.
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