In the brave new world of the 21st century, cars are about more than driving. They are full of touch screens, voice recognition software, and whatever BMW’s iDrive controller is. They deliver entertainment and information, and keep people connected with their social networks. Some critics, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), think these features are too distracting; last month, the NHTSA proposed regulations to curb embedded electronics.
Now, an auto industry trade group is saying the proposed regulations will actually make driving more dangerous. Mike Cammisa, director of safety for Global Automakers, a trade group that represents Honda, Toyota, and other carmakers, told government officials that restricting systems like iDrive and MyFord Touch would encourage drivers to use portable devices behind the wheel. “It does seem likely that drivers will use other devices not subject to the guidelines,” Cammisa said.
Markus Hess, speaking for Mercedes-Benz, agreed with Cammisa. Hess said regulations “will have the unfortunate consequence of encouraging drivers to use their handheld devices.”
Built-in systems have the obvious advantage of allowing a person to drive without holding a phone. Their touch screens and controllers are supposed to limit the number of inputs a driver needs to make, keeping his or her hands away from the wheel for a minimal amount of time. MYFord Touch and other systems can be operated with voice commands.
However, the absence of buttons, combined the sheer number of functions these systems are expected to perform, means that using one often involves scrolling through several menus or reciting a long series of commands to the computer.
While only 3 percent of police-reported crashes in 2010 (the most recent year with available data) were the result of embedded electronic devices, the NHTSA feels they should be regulated first because most people choose them over handheld devices, when available.
So far the proposals, which the NHTSA announced last month, consist of guidelines for making in-car systems easier and less time-consuming to operate. The guidelines were developed in concert with the Alliance of Automobile manufacturers, a trade group that represents the Big Three as well as Toyota and others.
The NHTSA is planning a second phase of guidelines that would limit the use of handheld devices. “How we deal with driving needs to be a holistic approach,” NHTSA administrator David Strickland said.
While the NHTSA has made many proposals, it has not moved to turn any of them into binding federal regulations. Last year, it suggested that all states ban the use of cell phones, even ones that can be used hands-free, while driving. However, the ban is still merely a suggestion.
The American people must be happy to know that neither their government nor the people making their cars think they can act responsibly behind the wheel. Is anyone going to prove them wrong?