Highway safety chief: Car not a 'mobile device'

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's David Strickland tells a telematics conference he opposes on-board information and entertainment apps, whether they're hands-free or not.

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?

 

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