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We Hope NHTSA Gets the Big Picture in Distracted Driving Debate

by Roger Lanctot | Mar 20, 2012

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was busy last week hosting three public comment sessions across the country on its driver distraction guidelines. The guidelines discussion were attended by auto makers, but NHTSA needs to reach out to a wider constituency including wireless carriers, handset makers and app developers.

These hearings follow, by two weeks, NHTSA’s announcement of delayed rule-making for a long-anticipated back-up camera mandate. The two issues are related since the back-up camera mandate will require a large center-stack display and the driver distraction agenda is intended to limit whatever else auto-makers may wish to do with that display. The back-up camera mandate came about as a result of a combination of legislation and extensive research by the agency. (NHTSA – Notice of Proposed Rule Making - The rule-making is projected to save approximately 100 lives annually with an estimated cost to the automotive industry of $1.9B-$2.7B.

The link in the previous paragraph to the US Department of Transportation Website provides all of the relevant insight and analysis behind NHTSA’s back-up camera decision. Many observers of NHTSA attributed the rule-making delay to election year considerations in the U.S. – the potential negative political fallout associated with the cost of implementing the mandate.

Whether politics entered into the consideration of the delay is less important than what the back-up camera mandate implies for the newly-commenced distracted driving debate. But, first, it is important to understand where NHTSA stands in its distracted driving deliberations.

The hearings last week were largely inconclusive and pointless and have likely spurred NHTSA to turn up the temperature. The industry representatives who testified before NHTSA representatives were not in a position to answer the single most important question for NHTSA: What are the automotive industry’s long-term plans for enabling mobile device connectivity in the car?

Car makers find it difficult to answer this question for two reasons. First, for competitive reasons car makers are loathe to reveal elements of their long-term strategy. Second, as far as connecting to mobile devices is concerned, car makers have no long-term strategy.

In the absence of long-term automotive industry planning, NHTSA announced its own plan for developing guidelines to cope with driver distraction:

The three phase process defined by NHTSA includes:

Phase I: Set two goals for ensuring that vehicle systems and devices do not distract or interfere with the safe operation of the vehicle. First goal is to reduce the complexity and amount of time required to operate devices and systems. The second goal is to disable certain types of functionality – such as manual destination entry for a navigation system.

Phase II: Proposed guidelines for the use of brought in devices of all kinds.

Phase III: Proposed guidelines for voice-activated controls for line-fit and aftermarket systems.

While all three elements of NHTSA’s plan are so-far described as guidelines with the corresponding voluntary industry adoption that that implies, the specter of mandates and rule-making is looming over the entire process. Any executive or observer who attended the hearings last week left with no doubt regarding the seriousness of NHTSA’s commitment to reducing driver distraction.

In contrast to the estimated 292 lives lost to back-over accidents in 2011, NHTSA has put a preliminary estimate of 3,000 on the number of lives lost to distracted driving. The agency has not yet been able to narrow down what portion of that figure can be attributed to the use of mobile devices or complex on-board systems, but NHTSA is working toward creating such a metric.

It is clear, though, that if the saving of 100 lives is enough to justify rule making, as in the case of back-up cameras, there is ample motivation for the agency to take action to mitigate driver distraction. The best news remains the fact that NHTSA has taken the voluntary approach that it has.

Unfortunately, the issue at hand in driver distraction is an ambiguous one fraught with conflicting philosophies and perceptions regarding human-machine interfaces and driver behavior. While a substantial amount of research has already been done and NHTSA has at least two studies already in process, the range of conflicting findings and methodologies suggest a lengthy process of discovery ahead for the agency and the industry.

At the same time, the back-up camera mandate will guarantee a wider deployment of large center-stack screens in cars in the U.S. and, likely, around the world. NHTSA is arriving somewhat late to a standards and guidelines discussion that it has brought about with its own rule making.


Distracted driving is a problem all over the world. It is a problem that has existed as long as cars have existed. The proliferation of mobile devices in cars has contributed to the problem and may be contributing to additional highway fatalities.

Large displays are also proliferating in cars. Large displays are also increasingly perceived as an added potential source of driver distraction, depending on what kinds of functionality are enabled. At the same time, car makers, handset makers, wireless carriers and app developers are looking to smartphone integration and connectivity to the larger in-vehicle display as a means to reduce distraction and limit, manage and control use of the mobile device in the car.

The auto industry is embarked on a journey to a new in-vehicle experience which will increasingly be defined by connectivity to off-board resources. This connectivity experience will encompass the integration of personal driver information – largely derived from the driver’s personal portable devices – vehicle sensor and map inputs and off-board resources such as weather or roadway information derived from other drivers.

Car makers and app developers are still working hard to determine how the output of this big data integration will manifest itself in the car to aid the driver and render the driving experience safer. Given the early stages of this application development, a light, guiding regulatory hand from NHTSA is what is most needed by the industry participants.

Hopefully, by its current efforts, NHTSA will establish a public policy framework for wireless carriers, application developers, wireless device manufacturers and auto makers to collaborate for the purpose of defining the nature of the driver distraction problem and agreeing on a solution. This means NHTSA needs to expand the scope of its current outreach and auto makers need to be more forthcoming about their plans.

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