Distracted Driving

In February 2012, NHTSA officials released, "distracted driving standards" - guidelines for in car technology like voice command GPS or connect with our social media services like Facebook, Twitter, etc.

With new laws prohibiting texting and limiting cell phone use by drivers, controversy and uncertainty have hung around new cars that come equipped with these types of in car technologies.

The problem is that we know that driving requires all our attention, even small lapses of attention can cause accidents; move your eyes from the roadway for a mere 3 seconds and you have traveled a relatively great distance at only 55 mph. Consider then the problems that face the American driver as well as the National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA), Department of Transportation, National Transportation Safety Bureau, and all of us living in this world with technology outpacing our ability to do testing.

"Distracted driving is a dangerous and deadly habit on America's roadways – that's why I've made it a priority to encourage people to stay focused behind the wheel," said Secretary LaHood. "These guidelines are a major step forward in identifying real solutions to tackle the issue of distracted driving for drivers of all ages." Geared toward light vehicles (cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, minivans, and other vehicles rated at not more than 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight), the guidelines proposed today are the first in a series of guidance documents NHTSA plans to issue to address sources of distraction that require use of the hands and/or diversion of the eyes from the primary task of driving. [1]

The NHTSA Phase I guidelines follow what we do know about texting, cell phone conversations, or using a map or GPS system while driving: these activities impair our driving to the point of testing for dangerous driving equivalent with drunk driving blood alcohol level of .08%. [3] The first guidelines then from the NHTSA are good and rather common sense.

- Reduce complexity and task length required by the device;
- Limit device operation to one hand only (leaving the other hand to remain on the steering wheel to control the vehicle);
- Limit individual off-road glances required for device operation to no more than two seconds in duration;
- Limit unnecessary visual information in the driver's field of view;
- Limit the amount of manual inputs required for device operation.

However, theses proposals are already running into problems with new technology being released to market just four months after these recommendations by the NHTSA were announced in February 2012.

The proposed guidelines would also recommend the disabling of the following operations by in-vehicle electronic devices while driving, unless the devices are intended for use by passengers and cannot reasonably be accessed or seen by the driver, or unless the vehicle is stopped and the transmission shift lever is in park.

- Visual-manual text messaging;
- Visual-manual internet browsing;
- Visual-manual social media browsing;
- Visual-manual navigation system destination entry by address;
- Visual-manual 10-digit phone dialing;
- Displaying to the driver more than 30 characters of text unrelated to the driving task.

Granted some of these guidelines are common sense yet difficult to design and engineer. Demonstrations of an in car GPS system show that the number of steps and the complexity of interface dials to use some in car technology require a great deal of attention from the driver which can't help but result in long lapses where the car driver was not looking at the road.

These in car technologies with complex interfaces that we know are distracting continue to be developed and sold. Just four months after these NHTSA guidelines were published in February 2012, Apple in June 2012 released a new in car technology which serves to help us violate this second section of recommendations by the NHTSA. Using an iPhone and USB the driver can connect with SIRI and applications in the car.

Apple calls its new vehicle-oriented application Eyes Free. It enables a driver to perform Siri-managed tasks, such as dictating text messages or summoning directions, by connecting an iPhone to the vehicle via a USB cable. [...] "call people, select and play music, hear and compose text messages, use Maps and get directions, read your notifications, find calendar information, add reminders and more." [...] When asked about Siri's move into vehicles, NHTSA declined to comment. [...] "We have got to dispel the myth of multitasking," Hersman said. "We are still learning what the human brain can handle." [2]