As car companies pack more onboard gear into their products, Web-browsing, entertainment and all driver communication should be off limits to drivers while a vehicle is in motion, the U.S. Department of Transportation urged this week.
The department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration posted its guidelines online Thursday in the Federal Register, seeking public comment. They call for factory-installed equipment for secondary tasks, those not essential for driving, to be studied for their ability to distract drivers and, in a second phase, if found to be unacceptable, be designed as inoperable by the driver.
Too Many Buttons
Tasks believed to most interfere with driving include "displaying images and video not related to driving; displaying automatically scrolling text, requiring manual text entry of more than six button or key presses during a single task; or requiring the reading of more than 30 characters of text (not counting punctuation)."
The goal is to keep drivers from watching videos, text messaging, Internet browsing or engaging in social media.
Public meetings will be held next month in Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles to discuss the guidelines. Specific dates have not yet been announced.
The guidelines define distraction as "a specific type of inattention that occurs when drivers divert their attention from the task of driving to focus on other tasks [from] navigation systems and cell phones." Distraction falls into three categories: Visual, aversion of the eyes from the road; manual, removing hands from the wheel; and cognitive, distracting drivers' attention.
The NHTSA said crash data show 17 percent of all accidents, or 899,000 events, were caused by driver distraction in 2010.
The guidelines are primarily concerned with integrated electronic devices, not more traditional equipment such as climate controls and other dashboard instruments or collision-avoidance control systems. The guidelines also focus on light vehicles rather than trucks because they comprise the majority of vehicles on the road.
Robert Sinclair, spokesman for the American Automobile Association in New York, said the guidelines are "a good step in the right direction" but said more data needs to be collected on the impact of a range of new interactive devices added to the dashboard by companies like Ford, General Motors and Toyota.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety is engaging in such a study with the University of Utah to determine whether voice-actuated devices -- such as texting and dialing, music controllers and browser search -- are safer.
"There is too little information to form a good enough conclusion," he said.
Noting that driving in and of itself is multitasking, he said the AAA is increasingly concerned that "more and more of these manufacturers feel they have to make these rolling iPhones to appeal to younger drivers."
Sinclair said he recently test-drove a Toyota Camry with a dashboard button marked "apps." After he started it, the car asked hm if he wanted to synch an Internet-connected device to the vehicle.