In the opening round of what may be a long battle with drivers addicted to constant in-car connectivity, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today released the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s guidelines to cut down on driver distraction. The agency hopes the guidelines will motivate vehicle manufacturers to rethink in-car communication, entertainment and navigations systems.
“Distracted driving is a deadly epidemic that has devastating consequences on our nation’s roadways,” said Secretary LaHood. “These guidelines recognize that today’s drivers appreciate technology, while providing automakers with a way to balance the innovation consumers want with the safety we all need. Combined with good laws, good enforcement and good education, these guidelines can save lives.”
Since there has been no federal legislation addressing the issue, the NHTSA guidelines are voluntary. They recommend specific criteria for any factory-installed devices that require a driver to take their hands off the wheel or eyes off the road for use.
Included are recommendations to limit the time a driver devotes to perform any task to no more than two seconds per action and twelve seconds to complete the task. At legal highway speed, generally 70 miles per hour, a vehicle travels 205 feet, more than two-thirds the length of a football field in just two seconds.
In addition, the guidelines recommend that systems be designed so that certain functions will be inoperative unless the gearshift selector is in the “Park” position. These functions include:
Manual text entry for text messaging and internet browsing;
Video-based entertainment and communications;
Display of certain types of text, including text messages, web pages, social media content.
The agency’s recommendations are derived from research results like the findings of a new NHTSA naturalistic driving study, The Impact of Hand-Held and Hands-Free Cell Phone Use on Driving Performance and Safety Critical Event Risk.
“The new study strongly suggests that visual-manual tasks can degrade a driver’s focus and increase the risk of getting into a crash up to three times,” said David L. Strickland, NHTSA Administrator. “The new guidelines and our ongoing work with our state partners across the country will help us put an end to the dangerous practice of distracted driving by limiting the amount of time drivers take their eyes off the road, hands off the wheel and their attention away from the task of driving.”
The study found text messaging, browsing, and dialing resulted in the longest duration of drivers taking their eyes-off-road. Text messaging increased the risk of a crash or near-crash by two times and resulted in the driver’s eyes off the road for an average of 23.3 seconds total. Visual-manual activities performed when completing a phone call – such as reaching for a phone, looking up a contact and dialing the number – increased the risk by three times.
The study did not find a direct increased crash risk from the specific act of talking on a cell phone. However, the manual-visual interactions involved with using a hand-held phone made its overall use 1.73 times more risky, since the use of these devices involve visual-manual tasks 100 percent of the time. Even portable hands-free and in-vehicle hands-free cell phone use was found to involve visual-manual tasks at least 50 percent of the time, which are associated with higher risk.
The guidelines, sure to draw criticism from some automakers and a number of consumers, are far less stringent than the proposals from the National Traffic Safety Board. Chairperson Deborah Hersman has called for a total ban on the use of cell phones and smart phones, whether hand-held or hands-free, by the driver of any motor vehicle.