LaHood: Automakers should block texts, tweets and browsing


U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has announced a new tactic in the fight against distracted driving. (Pat Wellenbach/AP)

Drivers won’t be able to text, browse, tweet or dial on factory-installed devices if auto manufacturers follow new federal guidelines to disable the gadgets while the wheels are rolling.

In announcing the latest step in his campaign against distracted driving Thursday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the government might next extend the guidelines to cover virtually every portable electronic device that could find its way into a vehicle.

“These guidelines are a major step forward in identifying real solutions to tackle the issue of distracted driving for drivers of all ages,” said LaHood, who has made distracted driving the marquee issue of his tenure as secretary.

Federal statistics show that 5,474 people died and an estimated 448,000 were injured in 2009 in crashes in which distracted driving played a role. Research has shown that drivers using hand-held devices are four times more likely to get into a serious crash, and that hands-free cellphones aren’t much safer because just talking on the phone reduces the brain power focused on driving by 37 percent.

The new federal guidelines, published Thursday in the Federal Register and subject to a 60-day period of public comment, recommend that manufacturers make it impossible for drivers to perform many functions while a vehicle is in motion, including: to send or look at text messages; browse the Internet; tweet or use social media such as Facebook; enter information in navigation systems; enter 10-digit phone numbers; or receive any type of text information of more than 30 characters unrelated to driving.

“The devil’s in the details,” said Robert Strassburger, vice president for vehicle safety at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, as he awaited release of the 177-page guidelines.

But Strassburger said automakers have been eager to add distracted-driving safety features to electronic devices they install in vehicles. He said the industry is committed to “the two-second rule.”

“Basically, any task behind the wheel that takes more than two seconds to complete or can’t be completed in a couple of brief chunks would be locked out or would be prohibited,” Strassburger said.

His alliance put out a formal statement in advance of the release of the guidelines, pointing out that the industry has been working under an evolving set of self-imposed electronics guidelines for a decade.

“This is a case of automakers getting caught doing something right,” the statement said.

It said the industry has sought to balance consumer demand with safety.

“Consumers expect to have access to new technology, so integrating and adapting this technology to enable safe driving is the solution,” the alliance said in the statement.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will hold hearings on the proposed guidelines next month in Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles.

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.

“GPS is a technology that supports the driver,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “Remember, before GPS, what were people doing? Holding up maps with one hand and trying to look at a map while trying to drive. We think that is a much more dangerous situation.”

Technology has been developed by several private companies that would allow car makers to restrict driver use of electronics. Strickland said his agency had not determined how much it would cost to add those features on factory-installed devices.

Many new vehicles already come with restricted electronic equipment, such as navigation devices that won’t allow a driver to enter a destination unless the car is stopped.

Barbara Harsha, executive director of the the Governors Highway Safety Association, a coalition of state safety officials, called the guidelines a good first step.

“DOT is on the right path,” Harsha said. “We particularly like the guideline for disabling devices that text and surf the Internet.”

The federal government has the authority to issue safety guidelines or mandates for auto manufacturers. If the guidelines were to apply to non-factory items — smartphones, tablets or other devices — it would fall to state governments to impose any restrictions.

LaHood has used the bully pulpit to get states to pass laws restricting cellphone calls and text messaging, and in the past federal authorities have imposed their will on issues like blood-alcohol levels and seat belts by threatening to withhold federal funds from non-compliant states.

“It gives the states that haven’t passed laws yet the momentum,” LaHood said.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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