Highway safety chief: Car not a 'mobile device'

There might be no stopping the continued transition of personal vehicles into rolling infotainment centers, but David Strickland plans to try.

The administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told a crowd at the recent Telematics Detroit 2011 conference he plans to oppose unsafe technologies that can contribute to distracted driving, writes Greg Gardner in the Detroit Free Press.

"I'm just putting everyone on notice,” Strickland said, choosing his words carefully and ironically, “A car is not a mobile device."

He wasn’t exactly preaching to the choir, either. The Telematics conference, in fact, is all about turning the car into the “ultimate” mobile device, as clearly stated on the conference website

Strickland isn’t proposing that automakers go back to the days of Fred Flintstone; he noted that cars have useful IT-based functions, such as Global Positioning System navigation, automated emergency notification and internal diagnostics, Gardner reported. But he took aim at on-board systems for entertainment and social media.

“I'm not in the business of helping people tweet better,” he said, according to the Free Press article. “I'm not in the business of helping people post on Facebook better.”

Beyond Twitter and Facebook, he didn’t go into specifics, but it’s not hard to find some of the things he could have been referring to.

Consider the Chevy Cruze ad, which debuted during the Super Bowl, showing a guy getting his Facebook updates read to him while driving, from a built-in app in the car. Sure, it’s hands-free, but potentially distracting. Maybe even very distracting.

A lot of the gadgets and devices being put into cars are hands-free, of course. It’s one of their selling points. But whether hands-free phone calls, tweets or Facebook updates are much safer that fiddling with a smart-phone keyboard while driving is up for debate.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety cites studies concluding that hands-free devices eliminate the physical distraction but not the cognitive distraction. And drivers on the phone by any means still increase their risk of crashes.

There are applications for hands-free texting while driving, such as one called DriveSafe.ly. The intention seems good, and it’s no doubt safer that physically texting while driving. But does that make it really safe?

And this doesn’t get into the DVD players and video streaming features that cars can have. Admittedly, they’re usually for people in the back seat, but they can be a source of distraction.

These are the kinds of features Strickland was taking aim at, but whether he’ll be successful is an open question. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is on his side in spirit, but decided earlier this year against putting any restrictions on in-care systems, at least for now.

Meanwhile, as technology improves and vehicle touch screens get bigger, apps in cars could be getting even more active. One example: using location-based services to transmit advertising to drivers as they pass a business, according to GPS World

Proponents figure they have to iron out some technology and privacy issues — and not everyone thinks it’s a good idea — but observers say its likely to happen, GPS World reports.

Like other in-car apps, it has its appeal. Say, you’re driving past a shopping center, looking for a place to eat, when a coupon for a restaurant in the shopping center pops up on your car’s screen. Nice. You know where to go for dinner. But are you looking at the road as you make that decision?


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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Reader Comments

Tue, Jun 14, 2011

Better GPS Systems, lane recognition, collision avoidance systems, automatic braking systems, and you have the Automated car that can take you to work, the shopping center or back home from the bar without endangering anyone.

Tue, Jun 14, 2011 The Shrimper Maryland

The thing is that a distraction can come from anywhere, any source. There is some evidence that it is indeed not just the physical acts of texting or whatever, but the MENTAL distraction as well. Ultimately, it all comes down to personal responsibility for ones actions... if you want to affect change (hate to use that term anymore)... make accidents caused by clear evidence of gross negligence from using these devices irresponsibly excluded from insurance coverage (if YOU are at fault, of course). THAT may get more peoples attention than any government action.

Mon, Jun 13, 2011 Dave

Well, to truly remove distractions, we should also forbid passengers to speak to the driver while the vehicle is moving, shouldn't we?

Mon, Jun 13, 2011 David L Washington, DC

Driving is a full time job and I applaud Mr. Strickland for his valiant, but sadly vain attempts to enforce this position. It only takes a seconds worth of distractions to kill a person. One only has to drive in any major city to see this. I have a car with blue-tooth enabled. I have no real desire to use it. I have a two hour commute and during that time, I leave my phone in my bag, on the back seat and focus on the idiot ahead of me...who is most likely texting, while eating... At least one of us should arrive alive. I intend it to be me.

Fri, Jun 10, 2011 Erik Wood Seattle, WA

I think we live in a culture where business people need to 'hit the ball over the net'. Teens consider it rude not to reply immediately to texts. Home schedules would grind to a halt without immediate communication. We are conditioned to pursue this level of efficiency but we are all supposed cease this behavior once we sit in our respective 5,000 pound pieces of steel and glass. Anyone can win an argument in a forum like this by saying "Just put the phone away" - but we can see its just not happening. I just read that 72% of teens text daily - many text more 4000 times a month. New college students no longer have email addresses! They use texting and Facebook - even with their professors. This text and drive issue is in its infancy and I think we need to do more than legislate. I decided to do something about distracted driving after my three year old daughter was nearly run down right in front of me by a texting driver. Instead of a shackle that locks down phones and alienates the user (especially teens) I built a tool called OTTER that is a simple GPS based texting auto reply app for smartphones. It also silences call ringtones while driving unless you have a bluetooth enabled. I think if we can empower the individual then change will come to our highways now and not just our laws. Erik Wood, owner OTTER LLC OTTER app

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