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Safety Group Wants Automakers to Steer Clear of Hands-Free Devices

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Center for Auto Safety wants federal regulators to restrict the use of systems that carmakers are building into their vehicles so motorists can't make phone calls or fiddle with other interactive gear while they drive.

The nonprofit group filed a petition yesterday with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, asking the agency to write rules prohibiting the use of such built-in systems while a vehicle is in motion. The group said traffic accidents will increase if drivers pay more attention to their personal affairs than to the road.

The systems, which include OnStar from General Motors, and Sync, which Ford introduced earlier this month, allow drivers to have wireless access to security features, navigational aids -- and increasingly a wide array of entertainment. This means they don't have to bring their own phones or music players into the car.

Demand for mapping services is expected to grow to $12 billion in 2009, compared with $8.3 billion in 2004, estimates the Freedonia Group, a Cleveland research company. "Our point is when it comes to electronic communication, we want the safety part to work and the unsafe gadgets to not work," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the District-based center, which was founded in 1970 by consumer activist Ralph Nader and Consumers Union. The idea, he said, is "you would shift into drive and the cell service goes off."

The concern over tech gear sets up a clash between automakers who have been steadily adding electronic features and those who point to research showing the equipment is unsafe.

A 2005 British Medical Journal study, for instance, found that cellphone use increased the risk of an accident fourfold and that keeping both hands on the steering wheel failed to improve safety. And NHTSA has done several research reports on the distraction issue.

No federal rules govern the use of cellphones or other personal wireless devices in vehicles. New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and the District allow only hands-free cellphone use while driving, while 11 states ban school bus drivers from using wireless phones, and eight ban teenage drivers from doing so.

NHTSA's policy has been "that auto and equipment manufacturers need to take into account what the impact might be on distracting the driver," spokesman Rae Tyson said. He said the agency can regulate equipment built into the car by the original maker. It has no jurisdiction over what the owner installs.

The potential market for enhanced wireless use in vehicles is substantial, as there are 225 million wireless subscribers in the country, according to the CTIA, a wireless industry organization.

The District-based group, which represents cellphone carriers and equipment makers, recommends hands-free use of phones and says drivers often use cellphones from cars to seek help during emergencies.

Car companies see profit and practicality in offering new in-car systems that deliver wireless services.

"People are doing this anyway, so the question is how can you enable them to do it more safely on the road," said Nick Twork, a Ford spokesman.

Sync, developed with Microsoft software, is to be in 12 Ford models this year. It is being billed by the world's third-largest automaker as a "voice-activated, hands-free, in-car communications and entertainment system."

The system lets drivers use voice commands or steering wheel or radio controls to talk or dial the phone and set music players. "These functions help people to not fiddle with their iPod [while driving] and not put their heads down" to dial the phone, Twork said.

Cristi Chojnacki, spokeswoman for OnStar by GM, a subsidiary of the world's largest automaker, agreed. "All of our services are focused on hands on the wheel, eyes on the road," she said.

The service, which was originally promoted as a way to help drivers in emergencies, has 5 million subscribers and is to be available in all GM vehicles by the end of the year, Chojnacki said.

OnStar can diagnose mechanical problems and provide weather, traffic and stock updates on request. It also has a navigation system that gives drivers verbal directions, turn by turn.

Researcher David Strayer, professor of psychology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and an expert in driver distraction, said the technology is advancing faster than regulators or the safety community can act.

Therefore, Strayer said, NHTSA should hold the makers of in-car wireless systems to the same standard the Food and Drug Administration demands of pharmaceutical companies. That is, automakers should have to test and prove their devices are safe before marketing them.

Insurance officials say they like the safety features that OnStar, Sync and other packages provide. They express less confidence in the prospect of drivers having more ways to entertain themselves while on the go.

Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington said the idea of added competition for a driver's attention bothers her "because we view distracted driving as a growing and significant risk factor."

She said she hopes government regulation "will encourage good technology but discourage use of it under the wrong circumstances."

David Snyder, vice president and assistant general counsel for the American Insurance Association, a District-based group representing 400 property and casualty insurers, called the expansion of in-car technology "a pretty worrisome direction." Even using a hands-free phone is risky, Snyder said.

"I don't think we want a roadway filled with people text-messaging and e-mailing," he said.

Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist for Bloomberg News. She can be reached atcskrzycki@bloomberg.net.

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