US DOT: Auto makers should disable in-dash electronics when cars are moving

The U.S. agency says in-dash electronics can increase the risk of a crash significantly

Automobile makers should prevent drivers from using their in-vehicle electronic devices to browse the Internet and send text messages while their vehicles are moving, the U.S. Department of Transportation has recommended.

Auto makers should also lock out drivers in moving cars from reading text messages, viewing photographs, displaying scrolling text and using video apps, the DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommended in voluntary guidelines released this week.

"Distracted driving is a deadly epidemic that has devastating consequences on our nation's roadways," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

The guidelines recommend that "that in-vehicle devices be designed so that they cannot be used by the driver to perform these inherently distracting activities while driving," the NHTSA said in a report.

An NHTSA study found that text messaging, browsing and dialing resulted in drivers taking their eyes off the road for the longest time of electronic activities the agency studied. Text messaging increased the risk of a crash or near-crash by two times and took drivers' eyes off the road for an average of 23.3 seconds, the agency said.

Activities performed when completing a phone call -- reaching for a phone, looking up a contact and dialing the number -- increased the risk by three times, the agency said.

"Distracted driving is a deadly epidemic that has devastating consequences on our nation's roadways," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

The study did not find a direct increased crash risk from the specific act of talking on a mobile phone, although the related actions created additional risk. Portable hands-free and in-vehicle hands-free mobile phone use involved additional tasks that increase risk 50 percent of the time, the agency said.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group, praised the NHTSA for "recognizing the importance" of hands-free technology, but it raised concerns about the recommendation that auto makers disable in-dash electronics without also addressing handheld devices.

"Our concern is that limiting built-in systems without simultaneously addressing portable devices could result in drivers choosing not to connect their phones in order to access the functionality they want," the alliance said in a statement. "That would be a troubling outcome, given the NHTSA finding announced today that visual-manual tasks associated with hand-held phones and other portable devices increase crash risk by three times."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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