Industry Pulse: NHTSA’s Strickland says distracted driving comes down to personal responsibility

Industry Pulse: NHTSA’s Strickland says distracted driving comes down to personal responsibility

Image via palmbeachpost.com | (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Nearly one year following our first exclusive interview with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) David Strickland, Be Car Chic again discussed the state of distracted driving with the agency’s Administrator.

Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and NHTSA Administrator David Strickland are continuing their fight against distracted driving. The duo has been on the national circuit for three years, campaigning against this deadly epidemic that claimed more than 3,000 lives in 2010 alone.

Today, 38 states have passed laws to ban texting and limit cell phone use by drivers. “The Secretary and other safety advocates have done a great amount of work to get the states to pass strong laws,” said Strickland. NHTSA hopes that robust laws and consistent enforcement will curtail accidents caused by distractions and encourage citizens to form more responsible behind-the-wheel behaviors, as the ‘Click It or Ticket’ campaign has done for drivers not wearing a seatbelt.

If the initiative is as successful as the agency intends it to be, then distracted driving would become as unsavory for the general public as driving drunk. Strong laws, good outreach and communication campaigns combined with successful law enforcement are the winning formula for Strickland.

“We have to make the right choices before we get behind the wheel to make sure we get home safely every time.”

– David Strickland, NHTSA Administrator

Manufacturing guidelines

NHTSA looks to data, engineering, and the human factor to determine its recommendations. NHTSA wants to steer automakers in the direction of safety without stifling their ability to innovate. “We want the manufacturers to innovate, but we want them to do it safely,” Strickland added. But the question remains, how do they do that in an age where people are connected around the clock?

Strickland indicated that NHTSA and DoT have worked in tandem with the trade groups that represent auto manufacturers, such as the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, to create their distracted driving recommendations. “Manufacturers definitely acknowledge that we look to their voluntary guidelines as a basis for ours,” said Strickland. “Generally speaking, they think NHTSA is heading in the right direction.”  The agency expected to hear from automakers during 60-day comment period that has now been extended through May 18.

“We recognize that there are some applications and some entertainment and educational components that today’s consumers and drivers want.”

For Strickland, the guidelines NHTSA released in February are the first step. The first of three phases of guidelines targets in-car technologies, specifically devices and applications built into vehicles at the point of manufacturing, and how the driver interacts with them. Strickland says that the core of the recommendations are to make sure that no in-car application takes more than 2 seconds for one glance and for a multiple step process longer than 12 seconds of looking away.

Myth busting

In all of this, there have been a few misconceptions of what NHTSA and DoT are trying to achieve through these rules of play. The goal is not to revoke all of our fun in the car, but they do want drivers to be smart behind the wheel and for automakers to proactively shape their in-car technologies to make those choices easier.

For example, Strickland agrees that having directions on-the-go is great, but believes the GPS system should lock out the driver from typing in text when the car is moving. “We don’t want anyone driving 65 mpg down I-95 typing in an address,” he said. Social media applications like Facebook and Twitter are OK, too. But NHTSA simply does not want drivers to be required to input anything while their eyes should be focused on the road ahead. And for now, the agency thinks that operation by voice is OK, although the data has not yet been finalized. “It’s a better option,” Strickland added.

The agency wants automakers to avoid including moving text, too many characters for drivers to digest in a quick glance and anything else that might draw eyes away from the task at hand.

“Really, when you think about it,” Strickland explained. “The core to [these guidelines] is keeping your ability to keep your eyes on the road, hands on the wheel and off of anything that requires input from the driver.”

Now trending: A digital lifestyle

A new set of challenges come with the proliferation of mobile devices in America, and the incessant need to stay connected to work, life, and friends. NHTSA continues to research the cognitive impact of mobile device usage on drivers; that data should be available later this year. Strickland elaborated on how our new digital lifestyle is defining generation gaps in car buying:

Device usage shows that people lead a 24/7, 365-days-a-year digital lifestyle. The trend line is interesting. Generation Y folks are not as much into car purchasing because they like to continue to be connected when on-the-go. This is causing manufacturers to question how they can provide a vehicle attractive to a teenager while still being safe.

The Administrator also explained that Gen Y actually gets a slight dopamine response when they hear that distinctive ‘ping, indicating they have a new text message or email waiting for them. “[It’s almost like a] Pavlovian response,” he said. “’Someone reached out to me so I must answer it.’”

The bottom line

If a physical reaction can genuinely be associated with the bells and buzzes of our mobile devices, then Strickland says our response must be “more than just saying, ‘Oh yeah, I just won’t answer my phone.’”

“A number of our surveys have shown that people will accept that other people driving distracted are incredibly dangerous on the roads,” Strickland added. “But [our attitude is] ‘I’m fine.’”

The Administrator emphasized that whether it is wearing a seatbelt or assigning a designated driver, he and NHTSA are focused on one thing and one thing only.

“It all comes down to personal responsibility. That overarches everything we do.”

LaHood and Strickland combat distracted driving in their daily roles within the Administration. “At the end of the day, you’re trying to build a cultural change so people make the right decision,” Strickland concluded. “We want people to be able to do the right thing behind the wheel.”

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This article was written by

Melanie Batenchuk founded Be Car Chic in 2009 as a way to help consumers make smart decisions when buying and selling their cars. Her prior work at the dealership, trade association and manufacturer levels has provided her a deep understanding of the complex facets within the auto industry, making her a leading woman in her field.

There are 3 comments for this article
  1. Court Demone at 3:46 PM

    It’s a good day when politicians acknowledge the limitations of law making and pump personal responsibility.

  2. Melanie Batenchuk Author at 9:36 AM

    Thanks for your comment, Court. Often times, in the midst of political banter, we don’t hear the honest perspectives that members of the Administration have. That’s why I enjoy having the opportunity to speak with insiders like Mr. Strickland and to write writing pieces like this one that shed a different angle on a popular issue.