Auto dashboards are becoming an arcade of text messages, GPS images, phone calls and Web surfing, the government says, and it's asking carmakers to curb those distractions when vehicles are moving.
Manufacturers have been loading up higher-end vehicles with an array of built-in gadgets in an effort to tempt car buyers who want to multitask behind the wheel in today's increasingly connected society. But the technological advances have raised concerns that drivers' attention is being diverted too much from the road.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Thursday proposed voluntary guidelines for manufacturers, including a recommendation that they design dashboards so that distracting devices are automatically disabled unless the vehicle is stopped and the transmission is in park.
"We recognize that vehicle manufacturers want to build vehicles that include the tools and conveniences expected by today's American drivers," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "The guidelines we're 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."
Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said carmakers will review the guidelines, which have a 60-day comment period. She noted that the industry has had its own voluntary guidelines since 2002.
"Drivers are going to have conversations, listen to music and read maps while driving, and automakers are helping them do this more safely with integrated hands-free systems that help drivers focus on the road," Ms. Bergquist said.
The guidelines, which are directed at passenger cars and sport utility vehicles, would exempt safety devices such as electronic-warning systems that alert drivers to potential collisions or lane changes. GPS and other navigation devices that provide directions would also be permitted while driving, but the safety administration is asking that the systems be designed so that drivers can't manually enter a destination unless the car is in park.
The alternative is for drivers to go back to studying maps while they drive, which is even less safe, Mr. Strickland said.
Ms. Bergquist, of the carmakers, cautioned about preventing addresses from being entered into GPS devices unless the vehicle is stopped.
"There are often passengers in the car who can enter addresses, so we need to consider that when looking at requiring these technologies to only be used in park," she said. "And if the GPS is disabled when moving, consumers can always bring their own Garmin into the vehicle. It's complicated."
Other dashboard technologies recommended for automatic disabling include text-messaging, Internet browsing, social-media browsing, phone dialing and computer screen messages of 30 characters or more that are unrelated to driving.
The guidelines would make exceptions for these devices if they are designed only for use by passengers and can't be accessed or seen by the driver.
One reason NHTSA decided to pursue voluntary guidelines instead of mandatory rules is that officials wanted to do something quickly, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters in a conference call. The process for writing federal rules often takes years to complete.
The guidelines are also a way "to continue the drumbeat" that distracted driving is a serious safety issue that costs lives, said Mr. LaHood, who has been vigorously campaigning on the subject for more than three years.