Attention Deficits: The electronics & buttons in the cab are distracting


Published: 05/01/2012

by Bill Siuru


Lots of distraction in this upscale sedan

Today’s cars and trucks come with ever more electronic gadgets and displays in the cab. Lane departure, pedestrian, and drowsy-driving warning systems as well as brake assistance and active cruise control, now standard equipment on high-end cars, are moving into all vehicles, just as anti-lock braking (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC) already have. While saving lives, they also can be a dangerous distraction to drivers.

And now there are even more: GPS navigation systems, complex radio/ CD/MP3, and cell phones that allow text-messaging while driving. Automakers are adding the ability to surf the Internet and access Facebook and Twitter. Animated displays in electric and hybrid vehicles show battery state-of-charge, remaining driving range, and location of charging stations. Some vehicles come with displays to help achieve greater fuel economy. These add more potential for distraction.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety (NHTSA), of all police-reported crashes in 2010, about 17 percent involved driver distraction. Of these 899,000 crashes, in about five percent the driver was distracted when using a portable cell phone or one that was part of the vehicle. Another three percent resulted when the driver was distracted when adjusting or using an integrated device or control like a radio or navigation system.

These two classifications are not mutually exclusive — a driver might have been multi-tasking by tuning the radio while on the phone at the time of the crash. Thus, the crash may be reported in both categories.

Enter The Feds
The problem of talking on cell phones and texting while driving is already being addressed. Currently, 35 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving. Nine states and D.C. ban hand-held cell phones except for emergencies. Thirty states ban all cell phone use for beginning drivers. Currently, no state bans the use of hands-free devices. Incidentally, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has found that texting on a cell phone is 23 times riskier than just talking.

Now the federal government is taking on distraction caused by electronic devices requiring visual or manual operation by drivers. For example, President Obama’s FY 2013 budget request includes $330 million over six years for distracted-driving programs to increase awareness of the issue and encourage manufacturers to limit the distraction risk of in-vehicle electronic devices.

The NHTSA recently issued proposed guidelines, now voluntary, covering certain original equipment operated by the driver through visual/ manual means, or those which require the driver to look at a device, hand manipulate a control, and watch for visual feedback. Such devices engage the driver’s eyes or hands for more than a very limited time while driving. It applies to communications, entertainment, information-gathering, navigation devices, and other functions not required for vehicle safety.

The guidelines would not apply to electronic-warning systems such as Active Cruise Control or Lane Departure Warning. The guidelines do not apply to heavy trucks, at least for now; just cars, SUVs, and other vehicles with 10,000-pound GVWR.

Now & The Future
The guidelines include these recommendations: reduce complexity and task-length required by the device; limit operation to one hand, leaving the other on the steering wheel; limit off-road glances to no more than two seconds; limit unnecessary visual information in the driver’s field of view; and limit the amount of manual inputs required.

The proposed guidelines also recommend disabling devices like visual-manual Internet browsing; text messaging; social media browsing; navigation system entries, 10-digit phone dialing; and display of over 30 text characters unrelated to the driving task. Devices would not be disabled if they can only be used by passengers and cannot reasonably be accessed or seen by the driver, or unless the vehicle is stopped and the transmission is in park.

NHTSA is also considering future Phase II proposed guidelines for devices or systems that are not built into the vehicle, but are brought into the vehicle and used while driving. This would include aftermarket and portable navigation systems, smart phones, electronic tablets and pads, and other mobile communications devices.

A third set of proposed guidelines in Phase III may address voice-activated controls to further minimize distraction in factory-installed, aftermarket, and portable devices.


Click here to read the second article, "Eyes Off The Road."