Posted May 30th 2012 4:29PM
No one would deny that distracted driving is a real problem. Everyone is familiar with it - it's that thing that happens when other people try to text, drink coffee, shave, apply mascara, and discipline their children all at the same time. Oh, and drive. Not you, though. You're an assiduous driver, right? It's all the other bozos out there who need regulating.
And regulated they will be. Earlier this week, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) held a hearing to discuss its proposed restrictions on built-in technology in cars, asserted as contributors to the problem of distracted driving. The U.S. NHTSA is looking to restrict three main categories of technology: dashboard instruments and controls, navigational systems, and Web access.
With regard to the first category, dashboard instruments and control, members of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers - which includes the 12 biggest automakers (except Honda, strangely enough) - has been operating according to voluntary guidelines for the past decade. One of these guidelines already includes dashboard operations with a design requirement to limit "manual-visual" operations - tuning the radio, adjusting climate controls, etc. - to no more than ten two-second glances. The proposed federal regulations would cut that to six two-second glances. That seems reasonable; it didn't provoke much protest from the automakers - an Alliance study already showed the mean number of glances away from the road scene for the radio tuning task is less than 7, anyway. Pretty close.
Read on after the jump.
What did elicit loud yelps of indignation was the proposed restrictions on navigation and Web access. Of course, no automaker wants to go on the record as opposing safety measures intended to reduce distracted driving. Indeed, they collectively avowed that automakers are second to none in their pursuit of public safety. Yet, in the name of safety, it was suggested that nothing should be done to regulate vehicle navigation and web systems specifically until restrictions were also developed for handheld and portable devices. After all, restricting in-car navigation input on-the-fly wouldn't stop a driver from pulling out a smartphone and keying out a gas station search and texting home to relay the delay.
This prompted a response from the U.S. Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), which was quick to suggest that "we ought to look at distracted driving holistically" and that candy bars, fast food, pets, and children are just as distracting as wireless devices. (Neither the Junk Food League nor Associated Pets would comment, but a spokesperson for Crying Children of North America stated that its members had no plans to discontinue distracting their parents until they got their damn French Fries.)
Try to picture this debate and you see a bunch of suits doing the wave as each industry representative stood, turned and pointed the finger at someone else.
But gee whiz, CTIA, it may be true that candy and children are also distracting, and yo, automakers, it may be true that handheld devices are also distracting. But here's the thing: you're not in charge of making those things safe. You're only in charge of the thing you're in charge of, and the more you talk about how it's really someone else's job, the more we notice that you're not doing yours.
The automakers do have a point, of course: gizmos have been distracting drivers since long before built-in distraction technology came along. And it's also true that even if built-in stuff is regulated, the myriad of after-market technomabobs will continue to deliver unchecked distraction. But to say that the automakers shouldn't be regulated until all devices are regulated is ridiculous - and you get the sense that the Alliance knows this.
Besides, the U.S. NHTSA stated that a set of guidelines for portable devices is coming next, but it?s clear that they'll be much more difficult to craft than the ones for built-in technologies. After all, how would you design a portable technology that can detect it's in a moving vehicle but not actually held by the driver of said vehicle - what if it's in the passenger seat or on public transit? Several companies are working towards addressing such issues, but solutions are not even close to market-ready.
Public policy is even stickier. Will phone and gadget makers be required to install these solutions at the factory? Would there be incentives for manufacturers or customers to opt for these solutions? Would there be penalties for people caught driving without any of these safeguards in place?
Regulating in-car technologies before portable ones also makes sense when you consider the relationship between car and driver to begin with. After all, most people understand that texting on a smartphone is not integral to operating a vehicle - it's something they do on top of that whole "driving" thing. But when a whistle or bell is built right into the car, the driver will naturally assume it's there to make driving easier if not more enjoyable and certainly not to induce a car crash. When there's a nice, big, touchy-feely navigation display down and right of one's field of vision, obviously it's meant to be looked at if not fiddled with, no? Of course it is, but not while, say, merging onto the freeway.
Navigation systems in some vehicles already lock out interaction when the car is in motion, optionally if not automatically. A regulation requiring this untouchable feature isn't really a stretch.
There's no denying that there should be some guidelines in place for the use of portable/handheld devices in cars. But the automakers need to be the ones leading the way. They're the ones marrying the distracting technology with the car itself, in effect saying "Drive using these gadgets."
Of course, there are ways to shut down both sides of the "regulate that first" argument.
If you take a drive through the fine Province of Alberta, you'll be expected to abide by its Distracted Driving Legislation (Bill 16), regarded as the toughest set of distraction regulations in the fine country of Canada. There, all distracting technology is verboten. GPS input, texting, dialing, reading, writing or otherwise using electronics while driving is a CAD$172 offence (so is personal grooming and a pet in the front seat). Hardwired to the car or carried in the hand, it doesn't matter, can't use it while driving. Call it excessive, but Alberta put the job of paying attention neatly on driver, not the automaker nor electronics manufacturer. Go figure.
News Source: Evergeek