NHTSA releases distracted driving guidelines for automakers

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced the first of three phases of guidelines that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will provide to automobile manufacturers. A first for the agency, the call for automakers to limit in-car distractions comes just days after President Obama announced his FY 2013 budget, one that included $330 million over six years toward distracted driving awareness programs. Find out the specifics of what NHTSA proposed here.

Passionate about curbing traffic deaths, NHTSA Administrator, David Strickland, spoke out about the importance of putting these initial guidelines into practice:

Our data shows that the vast majority of crashes occur because of dangerous behavior, including driving drunk, driving while distracted, and driving too fast. We are working hard to harness technology to help mitigate the effects of these risky behaviors. The guidelines we are issuing today address the interface between electronic devices and driver distraction.

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 automakers to help them develop electronic devices that provide features consumers want—without disrupting a driver’s attention or sacrificing safety.

Mobile device use, particularly cell phones, has become ubiquitous in the United States. With so much access to mobile devices while we’re on-the-go, drivers are not always putting their safety (and that of others on the road) first. But how to automakers and consumers agree on what’s OK for federal officials to legislate or regulate?

During our “Distraction Free Fridays” campaign in 2011, Be Car Chic had the opportunity to speak with the Administrator about the agency’s outlook on dangerous behind-the-wheel behaviors. Here’s an excerpt from that exclusive interview that clarifies where the line over regulation of mobile devices exists:

One point of contention for the auto industry, and an issue that Be Car Chic has brought up in prior blogs, is the regulation of how people can use their mobile devices when in their vehicles. But for Strickland, a gray area exists over the regulation of smartphones, which “by itself is a consumer product, regulated by other agencies,” he said.

“NHTSA regulates the car – federal motor vehicle safety standards and all that. But there really is – in terms of once that device comes into the vehicle and connects with it –no clear authority. Who actually regulates that?”

Strickland would not have us forego technology altogether, but he makes a good point that the mobile applications that are so widely popular are not made to be used by someone driving a car. The NHTSA leader wants to define how agencies deal with those issues.

“For us, guidelines are a stepping off point,” said Strickland. “[Auto manufacturers] have a strong obligation to do research and find that some applications are okay in the car – like navigation, streaming internet radio – what’s suitable for a driver while they’re operating a vehicle.”

“I recognize everyone wants to be connected on the go, but if you’re creating a business model in the market and it doesn’t have its roots in safety, then that business model will ultimately fail.”

Given that this is the first time an agency has provided a nation-wide set of recommendations for in-car distractions, it will be interesting to watch how auto manufacturers react to Phase I of NHTSA’s plan. Read the official guidelines document as shared in the Federal Register here.

This is just one more point that emphasizes the importance of Washington, D.C. in the overall automotive sector. Ultimately, what happens here impacts the entire industry – from what we build to what we buy.

Stay tuned to Be Car Chic for additional updates as this issue unfolds.

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Disclaimer:
 The author provides strategic communications services for organizations that represent the auto industry, including the topic of distracted driving. The views expressed in this post are solely the author’s and were not solicited by any third party.

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Melanie Batenchuk