NHTSA Says Automakers Should Disable In-Car Texting and Web-Surfing [UPDATED]

By Jacob Brown | April 24, 2013
While we didn't talk about it in our review of the 2013 Ford Focus ST, a wonderful driver's car with a questionable interior layout, we were amazed with one feature the car had in its MyFord Touch infotainment system: A text message service that had two full pages of pre-programmed messages you could send your friends without having to pick up your phone. If you have the right device, it will even read newly received messages back to you aloud. In California, texting while driving is illegal, but the Ford system allows you to bypass that problem by never actually touching your phone. Using voice commands, it's possible to never even touch the dashboard in a Ford with MFT. Ford has stated that's its plan for eliminating distracted driving.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has now said that doesn't begin to go far enough. It's recommending that automakers disable all internet, texting, and video devices in their cars. We don't think they'd be big fans of the Nissan Friend-Me concept from the Shanghai Motor Show, a car designed to keep you connected at all times.
"There's no doubt that drivers appreciate these technologies, but we've got an obligation to balance the innovations consumers want with the safety we need," the outgoing Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said over a conference call regarding the announcement. The guidelines the NHTSA recommended are non-binding; automakers can freely ignore them if they so choose. But they do serve as a template for what the government believes automakers can and should do to limit distracted driving. Other provisions include limiting the time a driver needs to change a radio channel or perform another task from 20 seconds down to 12 seconds, getting rid of any in-car social media, and potentially limit dynamic displays. Automakers, phone companies, and lobbyists argue that eliminating integrated phone functions would encourage drivers to break the law and text directly on their phones. Getting rid of dynamic displays might also diminish the user-friendliness of maps and help screens. The NHTSA says 3,331 people were killed in accidents involving distracted driving in 2011 versus 3,092 in 2010 when far fewer people had smartphones. on the other hand, 387,000 people were injured in 2011 due to distracted driving accidents versus 416,000 in 2010. Smartphones and information always accessible have become more and more important to drivers, and more of them have sought out high-tech solutions in their cars to make sure they can keep in contact with the outside world. While we're fans of driving and paying attention to it fully, many aren't. For them, using their electronic devices in a controlled, safe manner might just be safer than not using them at all. UPDATE: According to a Texas A&M study in conjunction with the Southwest Region University Transportation Center, there is no real safety advantage in speech-to-text technology versus manually texting someone. That is to say that either way, it's still dangerous. The study took 43 participants out on a road course without a cell phone as as a benchmark. Then, it made drivers complete the same course using Apple's Siri, Android's Vlingo, and manually texting messages. The Findings:
  • No matter what texting method drivers used, they were significantly slower to react than non-texting drivers.
  • Drivers spent less time looking at the road when texting, even when they were using voice-to-text.
  • Manually texting actually took less time than voice-to-text.
  • Drivers felt safer with voice-to-text, despite the fact they were just as bad at driving as when they used manual inputs.
"Understanding the distracted driving issue is an evolving process, and this study is but one step in that process," Christine Yager, the associate transportation researcher who managed the study, said in a statement. "We believe it’s a useful step, and we’re eager to see what other studies may find."
The takeaway: Ford and other automakers are in the process of trying to make communication while driving as easy as can be because drivers will inevitably do it anyway. Thing is, it might be more dangerous than driving without texting no matter how you stack it. Source: Automotive News (Subscription required), Texas A&M