- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) Automakers must make sure that new high-tech devices don't detract from safety, the chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.
"I recognize there's tremendous market pressure to add gizmos and gadgets to new vehicles some for safety, but mostly for customer convenience and appeal," NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey W. Runge told auto industry professionals at the Automotive News World Congress on Tuesday.
"Whether you're here representing a manufacturer or a supplier, you have a fundamental responsibility to assess hazard potential in these items."
He also had criticism for rollover-prone sport utility vehicles, telling the Detroit News that the public should "exercise its buying choices" and pick safer vehicles. "We cannot regulate ourselves out of this mess," he said.
Referring to a NHTSA rating system that gives fewer stars to vehicles that tend to roll over more, he said, "I wouldn't buy my kid a two-star rollover vehicle if it was the last one on Earth."
In his speech, he put more emphasis on driver distractions.
In a study released last month, Harvard researchers estimated about one in 20 U.S. traffic accidents involve a driver talking on a cell phone. Data on the number of crashes caused by cell phones is incomplete, and the cell-phone industry found fault with the projections and their connection to wireless phones.
Telematics wireless communications products designed into vehicles are available on 90 automobile models representing 19 brands in North America, according to the Telematics Research Group in Minnetonka, Minn.
Last spring, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers developed 23 voluntary principles to try to limit how much the gadgets interfere with driving.
The alliance says, for example, that new technologies should not block a driver's view or get in the way of other vehicle controls. The driver should be able to complete tasks with brief glances. Sounds should not be too loud.
Safety advocates say the guidelines do not go far enough, and many want the federal government to introduce new rules. NHTSA officials have said they have no immediate plans to regulate the gadgets.
"We cannot regulate fast enough to keep up with technological innovation, nor would we want to," Dr. Runge said. "This administration would always prefer voluntary brilliance to enforced compliance."
Dr. Runge said he's visited auto manufacturers in the United States, Europe and Japan in the past year and has been impressed with safety-engineering efforts.
IBM Corp. has worked with some automakers to develop systems that establish conditions under which telematic devices do not work.
"We've got systems that can detect if you're driving on a snowy night or an icy road," said Jim Ruthven, IBM's program director for automotive and telematics solutions. "That's not the time to be sending e-mails or telephone calls to the vehicle."

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