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Distracted Driving The Target Of New Federal Guidelines

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Federal guidelines would dictate how much manual input technology built into cars would require.
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Federal guidelines would dictate how much manual input technology built into cars would require.

Two seconds is not a lot of time, but it should be enough time for you to do something with your built-in navigation or communication system while you are driving, under guidelines issued by federal safety officials to automakers on Tuesday.

"Our distraction guidelines recommended limiting the time a driver must take his or her eyes off the road to perform any single task to two seconds," said David Strickland, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "They also limit eyes off the road to a total of no more than 12 seconds for more detailed tasks such as initiating a telephone call."

The voluntary guidelines, which give automakers three years to phase in, are designed to encourage automakers to drop systems that require the manual input of data while the car is in motion.

"We don't have to choose between providing consumers with the technology they want and keeping folks safe. We can and must do both," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Distractions abound for drivers

Recent studies by NHTSA confirm the cause and effect relationship between taking your eyes of the road to use a device and increased crash risk.

"Text messaging increased the risk of a crash or near crash by two times and resulted in the driver's eyes off the road for an average of 23.3 seconds," said Strickland, referring to a "naturalistic" driving study that examined the habits of drivers who admitted to using a hand-held cell phone at the wheel.

The guidelines are designed to cover a wide range of possible distractions caused by built-in devices.

"The guidelines support continued access to in-car navigation systems that allow the driver to select pre-set destinations and other inputs while the car is in motion. The task of manually inputting an entire address would likely not meet the guidelines criteria," Strickland said.

Other actions, including internet browsing, text messaging, and reading from web pages, would also not be allowable unless a car is parked, Strickland said.

Push for safety may have other effects

Automakers welcomed the release of the guidelines but questioned whether the strict time limits might lead to unintended consequences.

For instance, if a driver who connects his hand-held cell phone to his car's built-in communications system cannot complete certain tasks within two seconds (or 12 seconds for a series of tasks), he or she may simply use their phone with a hand that should really be on the wheel.

"When you look into things like performance metrics, whether it's shortening the amount of time that can be devoted to a task or changing the way something is done, if it doesn't meet the demands of the consumer they are not going to integrate that hand-held [cell phone] into the auto," said Wade Newton, a spokesman for the D.C.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 major automakers.

"Our concern is that limiting built-in systems without simultaneously addressing portable devices could result in drivers choosing not to connect their phones in order to access the functionality they want," the alliance said in a statement. "NHTSA data indicate that 98% of distraction-related accidents are due to factors other than use of the built-in system."

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