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Is in-car tech driving us to distraction?



As auto manufacturers continue to load up their latest offerings with tech services and communication devices, transportation officials are becoming increasingly concerned. On Thursday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed new guidelines for manufacturers including a recommendation that cars are designed so distracting devices are automatically disabled unless the vehicle is stopped.

The new initiative is consistent with the NHTSA’s recent recommendation of a total ban on cell phone use and texting while driving but recognizes that several other distractions, including web-based entertainment and communication devices, are also finding their way into passenger cars and sport utility vehicles.

“We recognize that vehicle manufacturers want to build vehicles that include the tools and conveniences expected by today's American drivers,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “The guidelines we're proposing would offer real-world guidance to automakers to help them develop electronic devices that provide features consumers want without disrupting a driver's attention or sacrificing safety.”

The guidelines would exempt safety devices such electronic-warning systems that alert drivers to potential collisions or lane changes. GPS and other navigation devices that provide directions would also be permitted while driving, but the safety administration is asking that the systems be designed so that drivers can't manually enter a destination unless the car is in park.

Manufacturers have spent millions adding hi-tech equipment to differentiate their products from the competition and they may be reluctant to impose restrictions on the use of such technology. “Drivers are going to have conversations, listen to music and read maps while driving, and automakers are helping them do this more safely with integrated hands-free systems that help drivers focus on the road,” said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

In December, the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents, said that texting, emailing or chatting on a cellphone while driving is simply too dangerous to be allowed and urged all states to impose total bans except for emergencies. That recommendation was inspired by a spate of deadly crashes, including one in which a teenager sent or received 11 text messages in 11 minutes before an accident. There were an estimated 3,092 deaths in crashes affected by distractions in 2010.

Currently, 35 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, and nine states and the District of Columbia bar hand-held cellphone use. Thirty states ban all cellphone use for beginning drivers. But enforcement is generally not a high priority, and no states ban the use of hands-free devices for all drivers.



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