Carmakers respond to demand for hands-free electronics

Automakers said Monday that they can make 21st-century vehicles safer as they continue to install all the electronic gadgets and gizmos that car buyers want to use while behind the wheel.

“When a device or feature is integrated into an automobile’s driver-vehicle interfaces, it is designed to be used in a way that helps the driver keep their eyes on the road and hands on the steering wheel,” Rob Strassburger, vice president for safety at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in prepared testimony.

Strassburger testified at the first of three hearings held by NHTSA, which has proposed in new recommendations that use of most factory-installed electronic devices by drivers be disabled while a vehicle is moving.

If automakers followed the guidelines, drivers would be prevented from sending or looking at text messages; browsing the Internet; tweeting or using social media such as Facebook; entering information in navigation systems; entering 10-digit phone numbers; or receiving any type of text information of more than 30 characters unrelated to driving.

Federal statistics show that 5,474 people were killed and about 448,000 were injured in 2009 in crashes in which distracted driving played a role. Drivers who use handheld devices are four times more likely to get into a serious crash, research has shown, and hands-free cellphone use isn’t much safer because engaging in a phone conversation reduces the focus on driving by 37 percent.

“The notion that a choice must be made between ensuring that drivers are safe and including cutting-edge new features in vehicles is a false one,” NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said in a statement opening the hearing. “We recognize that vehicle manufacturers want to build cars that include the tools and conveniences expected by today’s drivers.

“Our first goal is to reduce the complexity and the amount of time required to use electronic devices,” Strickland said. “Our second goal is to disable operations of various in-vehicle electronic devices while driving, unless the devices are intended for passenger use and cannot be reasonably accessed or seen by the driver.”

Under the guidelines, passenger use of electronic devices would not be restricted, although no one could enter a new address in a factory-installed GPS unit unless the vehicle was stopped.

Strassburger testified that automakers recognize the potential for deadly consequences when drivers take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds, citing a Virginia Tech study showing that the chance of a near miss or crash more than doubled.

“Hands-free technology allows a driver to operate the system using verbal commands,” he testified, adding that display screens for necessary devices should be mounted high enough that a driver’s glance doesn’t stray far from the road to check them.

He urged NHTSA to finalize a single package of guidelines so that manufacturers can create systems for integrating portable devices into the overall on-board electronics scheme safely.

“For example, integrating a music player into the vehicle’s hard-wired system can allow a device’s information to be presented on the car’s integrated display, providing safer access to information on that device,” Strassburger said.

NHTSA plans to hold additional hearings on the proposed guidelines Thursday in Chicago and Friday in Los Angeles.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.

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