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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.

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NHTSA says the regulations are in line with the findings of their new study, also released Tuesday, which shows that the likelihood of a crash or near-crash increases threefold when drivers are looking at screens or touching their devices. 

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Because the new voluntary guidelines from NHTSA focus only on in-vehicle technologies, some of the big automakers have argued they will fail to truly limit distracted driving. They have pointed out that more crashes have been linked to the use of hand-held phones than to in-vehicle systems.

Research also shows that distracted driving results from a variety of behaviors, including speaking on the phone, eating and drinking, talking to passengers, grooming, reading, using a navigation system, and adjusting the radio.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group that represents Detroit's Big Three, Toyota, and other automakers, has urged the NHTSA to look at how guidelines might apply to cellphone-makers and application developers as well.

The alliance isn’t unconcerned with distracted driving; it has had its own set of guidelines in place for a several years. And many automakers already place restrictions on use of in-vehicle systems while the car is in motion. But Mitch Bainwol, president and chief executive officer of the alliance, has said these new voluntary restrictions will simply push drivers to use their hand-held devices (not synced to the car system). This poses an even greater safety risk as he says it encourages drivers to “look down, not up.”

Automakers have noted other ways drivers will get around the restrictions – including the use of aftermarket devices that unlock these limitations. They have also argued that the 12-second time limit on task completion is unrealistic and should be expanded to 20 seconds.

Disagreement over specifics aside, the question of whether technology can ever be made “safe” in vehicles remains. A study released Tuesday from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found no safety benefits in the use of voice-to-text applications (such as the iPhone's Siri) over manual texting. In fact, the study found that “driver response times were significantly delayed no matter which texting method was used.”

Christine Yager, who directed the study, says “more and more technology” in cars – even if it is made safer – is “not necessarily the answer.” She says this is “because there are three ways that drivers can be distracted – hands, eyes, or mind” and that “anything that takes anything away from primary task of driving” poses a safety risk.

“Technical solutions, legislation, education, and public research all [play] a role,” she says, in advancing solutions to combat distracted driving. And this work is “constantly evolving because of all technologies constantly hitting the market.”


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