"We have been on a crusade for more than three years against distracted driving," Ray LaHood, U.S. DOT secretary, said. "Every single time a driver takes his or her focus off the road, they put their lives and the lives of others in danger. In 2010 alone, over 3,000 people were killed in crashes where distracted driving was a factor. Increasingly, the data shows that as technology evolves, cell phones aren't the only central distractions in vehicles."
LaHood, alongside NHTSA administrator David Strickland, announced Thursday that their departments are recommending guidelines to limit distractions for drivers. While many common distractions such as eating, applying make-up and even brushing one's teeth are still an issue, these guidelines only apply to electronic devices and devices that are built into the vehicles by automakers.
"Many car makers are now developing in-vehicle electronic systems that can give directions, post to social networking sites and search the Internet," LaHood said. "While these devices may offer consumers new tools and features, President Obama's administration is urging automakers to ensure these devices don't also avert a driver's eyes and hands away from his or her primary responsibility, driving.
"So, the Department of Transportation is proposing a set of safety guidelines for in-vehicle electronic systems, the first of their kind. They include our recommendation that manufacturers limit the amount of time that drivers must divert their eyes off the road or take a hand off the wheel to operate in-dash or in-car technology. They include our recommendation that functions like manually entering an address into a GPS system or sending a text message or dialing a phone or posting to Twitter or Facebook [be avoided.] We believe that all of these applications should be disabled unless a vehicle is stopped or in park. Significantly, all of these measures are backed up by groundbreaking research and analysis from America's traffic safety organization."
Strickland agrees, noting that safety benefits are to be gained should these guidelines be implemented in the future.
"[NHTSA] envisions a new safety era that will revolve around safe vehicle designs and emerging technologies," Strickland said. "We expect crash avoidance technologies to provide an opportunity to save lives and reduce injuries by preventing crashes from occurring in the first place."
While devices are the primary distraction, driver behavior plays a role in the governmental studies.
"Our data shows that the vast majority of crashes occur because of dangerous behavior including driving drunk, driving while distracted and driving too fast," Strickland said. "We're working hard to harness technology to help mitigate the effects of these risky behaviors.
"We recognize that vehicle manufacturers want to build vehicles that include the tools and conveniences expected by today's American drivers. The guidelines we are proposing would offer real world guidance to auto makers to help them develop electronic devices that provide features customers want without disrupting a driver's attention or sacrificing safety."
The guidelines would be implemented in phases, beginning with Phase I, which includes two goals NHTSA aims to achieve which would enable manufacturers to ensure that in-vehicle devices do not interfere with a driver's focus and attention to the road.
"The first goal is to reduce the complexity and the amount of time required to use electronic devices," Strickland said. "We know that when a driver's focus shifts from the road to other activities within the vehicle there can be serious safety consequences. This goal essentially reduces driver's distraction by setting four new limitations on electronic devices. One: limit device operation to one hand only thereby leaving the other hand for steering. Two: limit the duration of off road glances to no more two seconds. Three: limit unnecessary visual information in the driver's field of view. Four: limit the amount of manual inputs required to operate the device.
"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, or unless the vehicle is stopped and the transmission shift lever is in park."
Strickland and LaHood's announcement focused on consumer vehicles. These guidelines, therefore, do not apply to emergency responders and law enforcement, who are often distracted on the roadways by emergency calls.
"The nation's public safety professionals - including first responders such as police, fire, and EMS - have a special mission, information needs, and training that clearly distinguish them from other motorists on our roadways," U.S. DOT spokesperson Karen Aldana said. "In particular, law enforcement officers need certain in-vehicle equipment to do their job safely and effectively. As a result, law officers are trained to operate their vehicle and its equipment without compromising their own safety or that of other road users."
All of the guidelines proposed are intended to increase safety and reduce accidents on the nation's roads due to social distractions including text messaging, phone conversations and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The other goal is to dismiss the ability to enter addresses into a navigation system while driving.
"That's what the American people want," LaHood said. "We believe the guidelines we're proposing are common sense measures and I hope the automakers will join us in taking another major step forward in identifying and employing real world solutions to America's distracted driving epidemic."
The public will have 60 days, which began Thursday, to comment on the guidelines and final guidelines will be issued after the agency reviews and analyzes the public input.