NHTSA proposed new guidelines to curb driver distraction while using mobile devices

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【Summary】On November 23rd, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a voluntary guidelines to curb driver distraction from using mobile devices in car, and extend the reach to tech companies and app developers.

Original Claire    Nov 29, 2016 9:45 PM PT
NHTSA proposed new guidelines to curb driver distraction while using mobile devices

Our lives are closely intertwined with mobile devices. There can be no doubt that iPhones, laptops and other portable electronic products have become our "best friends." They occupy a large amount of our time. Whenever we relax for a moment after housework, wake up in the morning or drive on a congested road, we often check our smartphones for messages, news feeds, music lists or interesting postings on Facebook. The obsession with mobile devices is becoming an all-consuming habit. Yet the U.S. government is concerned about the impact this might be having on traffic safety.

Recently the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued voluntary guidelines to curb driver distraction while using mobile devices on the road. These guidelines have been loosely extended to tech companies and app developers.  

"As millions of Americans take to the roads for Thanksgiving gatherings, far too many are put at risk by drivers who are distracted by their cellphones," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

"These common sense guidelines, grounded in the best research available, will help designers of mobile devices build products that cut down on distraction on the road."

The guidelines recommend tech companies design products paired with in-car systems. This is so drivers will be able to use the vehicle's user interface directly instead of checking their cellphones while driving. NHTSA also stressed that when using the vehicle interface, some entertainment functions such as playing videos, texting messages, browsing the Internet or displaying social media content should be "locked out."

This is the second phase of guidelines sent out by the NHTSA to curb driver distractions. The first phase was issued in 2013. Basically that initial edict sought to admonish automobile manufacturers not to design infotainment systems in ways that are distracting for drivers. It sought to limit the time "a driver must take his eyes off the road to perform any task to two seconds at a time and twelve seconds total."

NHTSA says 10 percent of the 35,092 fatal crashes in 2015 involved at least one distracted driver. This resulted in 3,477 fatalities, up 9 percent from 2014. Distraction was also factor in 16 percent of the 5.6 million non-fatal crashes in 2014, according to the most recent data available.

According to a NHTSA spokesperson, the guidelines are mainly targeting tech companies such as Apple and Google. However, the agency mentioned these are voluntary, non-binding guidelines and not formal regulations. They will seek public comments on their proposals from various stakeholders.

There are been varied responses to the new guidelines. For example, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers mainly supports the idea, saying that it's always important to encourage drivers to use in-vehicle systems rather than handheld electronic devices. However, some from consumer electronics industry blasted the guidelines as an overuse of NHTSA.

"NHTSA doesn't have the authority to dictate the design of smartphone apps and other devices used in cars -- its legal jurisdiction begins and ends with motor vehicle equipment … Such a vast and extreme expansion of NHTSA's authority, if it were to happen, would have to be explicitly granted by Congress." Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association said in a statement.

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