Auto makers call for cooperation with cellphone developers to fight distracted driving

Your apps and your automobile need to work together to minimize driving distractions, carmakers said Tuesday, appealing to the likes of Apple and Google to join them in tackling the problem.

Unless mobile communication devices are integrated into vehicle systems designed to minimize their potential distraction, drivers who want instant access to the data they provide will allow their eyes to stray from the road, said Robert Strassburger, vice president for safety at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

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“We need to have all the parties at the table,” Strassburger said during testimony at day-long hearing on distracted driving hosted by the National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday.

The NTSB last year called for a ban on all cellphone use while driving, putting it a step beyond the U.S. Department of Transportation. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has led a national crusade against distracted driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 5,474 people died and 448,000 were injured in 2009 in crashes in which distracted driving was involved.

Strassburger said the auto industry is moving toward hands-free devices that require only brief glances at eye level.

“That’s not possible when you’re trying to manipulate a hand-held device in your lap,” Strassburger said. “We need a holistic approach.”

He said most mobile device manufacturers have not taken an active role in discussions with automakers.

“It’s clear that we don’t need another decade of investigations and recommendations,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said. “We’ve really got to change the dialogue from discussion to action.”

But Anne McCartt of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety cautioned that despite a decade of research on distracted driving, more data gathering is needed to verify statistics based on police reports and driver simulation experiments.

“It’s just a reality that distraction is not reliably reported by police,” McCartt said, pointing out that they often have to rely upon driver admissions or witnesses. “There are a lot of things we’ll never really understand about distraction.”

Board member Robert Sumwalt said he was particularly disturbed by passage of state laws banning hand-held use.

“This is a big myth,” Sumwalt said. “We have people thinking they are doing the right thing. [But] there is not a significant difference between hand-held and hands-free.”

Though there are a vast array of distractions over which drivers have no control, McCartt said cellphone use and text messaging pose a high risk “because they expect a response.”

NHTSA statistics indicate that 16 percent of teenage drivers involved in fatal accidents were distracted in some way.

Donald Fisher, a University of Massachusetts professor, said that allowing companions into a teenager’s car creates a distraction, while a passenger older than 30 may provide a welcome “extra pair of eyes” for a driver.

He said novice drivers of all ages are 16 times more likely to take a “dangerous glance” away from the road.

“We ought to quickly move to banning cellphone use in work zones and school zones,” Fisher said.

NTSB board member Mark Rosekind cited research that underscored the risk of distractions.

“Multi-tasking is a misconception,” he said. “We all think we can do it, but we can’t.”

The NTSB is an independent federal safety agency that makes recommendations to Congress and the White House but has no regulatory or lawmaking authority.

Thirty-five states and the District prohibit drivers from text messaging, and nine states and the District ban the use of hand-held cellphones. But no state has banned all cellphone use.

The NTSB hearing came a day after Chapel Hill, N.C., approved a total ban on cellphone use while behind the wheel.

 
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