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A two-second rule for distracted drivers? Automakers asked to restrict tech.

In an effort to curb distracted driving, the Department of Transportation issued voluntary guidelines asking automakers to place restrictions on in-vehicle technology.

By Cricket FullerStaff / April 23, 2013

A woman fiddles with her phone during rush-hour traffic in Copley Square in downtown Boston, in 2008.

Ann Hermes/Staff



Transportation officials want you to take your eyes off the road for no more than two seconds at a time, and they are asking automakers to help.  

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New voluntary guidelines released Tuesday by the US Department of Transportation and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) seek to curb distracted driving by limiting drivers’ use of in-vehicle electronics while the vehicles are in motion. The guidelines ask automakers to place restrictions on in-car technologies, especially those connected to the Internet.

Proponents say the voluntary guidelines, which are to be phased in over the next three years, will help curb distracted driving. But critics argue that the guidelines unfairly target automakers.

What’s not in dispute is the growing impact of technology on driving. Federal data report that, in 2011, crashes involving a distracted driver killed 3,331 people and injured another 387,000. For teenagers, the problem is worse: Car accidents are the No. 1 cause of death of teens (indeed, of all people ages 5 to 34), and a quarter of all teen-driving crashes are attributed to distracted driving. And, despite an increase in bans on cellphone use while driving, an NHTSA survey released earlier this month shows that this usage has remained steady during the past two years.

The new guidelines target only the electronic systems found in many newer cars. These systems mirror the capabilities of an Internet-enabled PC or tablet and often have large in-dash touch screens that coordinate navigation, phone calls, music, and text messaging. Many allow Web browsing and social media activity, complete with text and multimedia displays. Some cars also allow drivers to sync their smart phone to the in-vehicle system.

The NHTSA says the guidelines include some changes to address automakers' concerns and to reflect the input of industry groups, researchers, and advocates. "These guidelines recognize that today's drivers appreciate technology," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a press release, "while providing automakers with a way to balance the innovation consumers want with the safety we all need."

Specifically the guidelines ask automakers to develop technology that would limit the time a driver must take his or her eyes off the road to complete a specific task, such as adjusting or selecting music, to two seconds. And it would put a 12-second limit on more detailed tasks, such as initiating a phone call. A series of two-second actions could thus not exceed a 12-second cumulative time period for the task as a whole – unless the vehicle is stopped and in park.

This limitation would allow drivers to choose preset locations on maps or navigation devices, but would generally not allow enough time to input a new address while driving. The guidelines also ask automakers to develop technology that disallows any amount of manual text entry for communication or Internet browsing. The limitations would restrict all social media and Web-browsing activities unless the car is parked. And the system would not display text, images, or video while the car is in motion either. This restriction would not apply to maps and dynamic navigation systems.


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