- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2012

Drivers will switch from using distracting devices built into car dashboards to using even more distracting hand-held devices unless the federal government addresses both issues at the same time, automakers warned Monday.

Voluntary guidelines proposed last month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration call for automakers to include technology in cars that automatically disables built-in devices for phone calling, texting, emailing, Web surfing and other distracting activities unless the car is parked. GPS navigation systems still would work, but drivers would only be able to enter addresses when the vehicle is stationary.

The proposal is the first of three sets of guidelines the agency is working on to limit driver distractions. A second proposal on technologies that would limit drivers’ use of hand-held devices while the car is in motion is tentatively scheduled to be unveiled next year. The third proposal - guidelines on how automakers can use voice-activation systems to reduce the number of times drivers need to press buttons or touch screens - is expected a year after that.

But carmakers and others urged NHTSA officials at a public hearing to speed up work on the second and third phases. Consumers want to make phone calls, get directions and do dozens of other things while driving, and they will find a way to do it, carmakers said.

Rob Strassburger, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers’ vice president for safety, compared restricting dashboard devices but not hand-held ones to building a fence around three sides of a yard while leaving the fourth side open.

“Consumers have options,” he said. “If the use of one option is curtailed, drivers will migrate quickly to others that are not restricted.”

A variety of technologies already are available that automakers could put in cars to block drivers’ use of hand-held devices, but the technologies appear to have unintended consequences, David Strickland, NHTSA’s administrator, said. The government wants to make sure the devices don’t block drivers’ access to electronic safety devices in cars that help them drive, he said.

Also, some blocking devices can hinder the use of wireless devices belonging to people nearby or in other cars, he said.

Dashboards that allow drivers to synchronize their wireless devices with built-in technology are another solution, manufacturers said. By syncing devices, drivers can choose songs or get directions using larger touch screens that are situated on dashboards within a drivers’ line of sight, rather than having to look down at smaller screens on devices held in their laps, they said.

Marc-Anthony Signorino, general counsel for the Distracted Driving Safety Alliance, an industry-supported group that includes electronics manufacturers, said the technology exists to enable virtually any dashboard device to be activated by voice, allowing drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

“With the touch of one button and just my voice, I can ask my phone to find me good barbecue via Yelp, make a reservation on Open Table and send invites to my friends, all coordinated on my calendar via Outlook,” Mr. Signorino said. “That’s coming to your car very soon. And that’s a good thing.”

But researchers say studies show hands-free devices can be just as distracting as hand-held devices because what matters is where the drivers’ attention is focused - not what their hands are doing - that matters. The NHTSA estimates there were 3,092 deaths in crashes affected by driver distractions in 2010.

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