The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a series of non-binding guidelines to automakers last week, requesting that any integrated electronic devices placed in new cars have a feature disabling social networks like Facebook and Twitter while the car is in motion. DOT may also develop guidelines for handheld electronics like cell phones and voice-activated electronic systems. This is part of DOT’s campaign to cut down on “distracted driving,” meaning driving while using a device that takes the driver’s attention off the road. This includes not only talking on a mobile phone but also texting and using social media.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is part of DOT, nearly ten percent of all traffic fatalities in 2010 involved distracted driving. The use of hands-free devices like headsets does not necessarily improve a driver’s attention.
Auto industry analysts estimate that the number of sales of new cars that have smartphone and “embedded connectivity units” will increase by twenty-nine percent in the United States in 2012, with at least 5.8 million “in-vehicle units.” These include not only smartphones and other mobile phones, but also devices physically embedded in the cars themselves such as GPS navigation systems. Some cars also feature attached or embedded devices that allow passengers, although ideally not drivers, to access the internet. By 2026, some analysts expect that all cars sold in North America and Japan will have some sort of embedded technology. Mobile phones have grown more sophisticated as well, allowing drivers to make and receive phone calls and to use multiple features of the internet.
In December 2011, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), another agency of DOT, recommended that states enact laws banning the use of mobile phones and other electronic communications devices while driving. In September, it had recommended a ban on mobile device usage by commercial drivers, such as truck drivers. The NTSB has no actual rule-making authority and can only issue recommendations to other federal agencies and state and local governments. This Connecticut Injury Attorney Blog reported on the NTSB’s recommendation in December. Its recommendation specifically covered “non-emergency” use of call phones while driving, but it may expand its recommendations to request a ban on all mobile phone use. It has called distracted driving a public health crisis comparable to drunk driving or smoking.
Automakers are working on guidelines of their own related to distracted driving. Rather than disabling electronic devices, industry guidelines would seek to minimize the amount of time drivers must take their eyes off the road. This would serve to allow drivers to have access to electronic devices, which can come in handy in emergency situations, but would also work to prevent distraction.