I heard a Detroit-area radio news commentator a few weeks ago saying it appeared the U.S. Transportation Department was slowing down its push to ban in-car distractions.
This was good news, the commentator said, since Detroit automakers make so much money off the optional in-car navigation and entertainment systems that allow drivers to access the Internet and download music on the go.
The commentator may have been a little premature. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced last week that the department was issuing guidelines that request automakers disable such devices while cars are moving. Functions that only require one-hand operation and two-second glances would still be allowed.
The proposals are voluntary and were drafted with the input of carmakers. Unlike those suggested by the National Transportation Safety Board last year, they don’t take aim at MP3 players, smartphones or other devices drivers bring with them into the car.
But LaHood has said he’d like to see regulations go farther, and he still maintains the safest place for a cellphone is in the glove box. And in fact, the proposals are only the first part of a trio of proposed regulations that will likely cover aftermarket GPS navigation systems and possibly cellular phones. Even the way in which voice-activated portable electronics operate in cars is likely to be addressed.
Automakers were generally supportive of LaHood’s guidelines, which isn’t surprising since most had a hand in helping to craft them, and the fact that they’re voluntary certainly helps.
A number of spokespeople for car manufacturers, however, used the announcement to remind the government they are unwilling to back away from installing these popular, profitable systems that American drivers are demanding.
It will be interesting to see what the next move by LaHood and other safety advocates is. Changing guidelines into mandates is a long, slow process - which is likely why LaHood took the voluntary route. And if he suggests that smartphones and other portable devices come with disabling or signal-blocking software, he’s likely to run into stiff opposition from electronics companies and consumers who don’t want to see passengers’ ability to safety use their products curtailed.
There are also technology considerations, but perhaps the biggest obstacle would be that the Transportation Department has no control over anything brought into a vehicle. Such rules would fall to state officials. In a country where only nine states require cellphone headsets behind the wheel - much to the NTSB’s dismay - further action is unlikely.