Back in February, we told you about some new rules -- or rather, suggestions -- that the Department of Transportation had compiled for automakers. The rules/suggestions were meant to set standards for in-car equipment that would help curb distracted driving. Our colleagues at Cnet have done a close reading of the official document and found one proposal that would render some navigation systems practically pointless.
When Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released the document in February, they said that "the guidelines would establish specific recommended criteria for electronic devices installed in vehicles at the time they are manufactured that require visual or manual operation by drivers." So, NHTSA was suggesting "best practices" for car companies to help guide the way they design visual and manual interfaces for their in-dash systems.
But that was just phase one of a three-phase plan. Phase two, which has yet to be released, will provide similar guidelines for aftermarket and smartphone manufacturers (e.g. TomTom, Samsung, Apple, and possibly app-makers). Phase three will focus on auditory controls in systems built by all three types of companies -- automakers, aftermarket sellers, and handset designers.
The fine print
What Cnet found after a close reading of the phase-one document was that in Section V.5.b, NHTSA states that "Dynamic, continuously moving maps are not recommended." However:
The display of either static or quasi-static maps (quasi-static maps are static maps that are updated frequently, perhaps as often as every few seconds, but are not continuously moving) for the purpose of providing driving directions is acceptable.
In other words, a map that is revised every few seconds is a-okay, but a continuously moving one isn't.
If this guide applies to aftermarket manufacturers too, it will leave many navigation systems -- including most apps that rely on Google Maps -- in the clear, since few of those are "continuously moving". Speedier systems like TomTom and some in-dash set-ups, though, won't get the DOT's seal of approval.
It's great to see NHTSA fueling a national dialogue on tech-related safety issues. LaHood's team seems to be trying to get ahead of these problems and address them proactively -- which is commendable for a government agency.
We also appreciate the fact that LaHood and NHTSA haven't tried to give their guidelines the weight of law. As the document quite rationally says, "the rapid pace of technology evolution cannot be fully addressed with a static rule put in place at this time." In other words, the guides are meant to show what's good and bad in telematics design, not what's grounds for a recall.
The writer at Cnet suggests that NHTSA would be better served spending less time on vehicle safety regulations like these and more time developing driver training programs, arguing that such programs are the only way to ensure truly safe drivers. In NHTSA's defense though, we should point out that roughly 2/3 of the agency's $860 million budget is spent on initiatives like driver training, with less than 20% spent on vehicle safety, as per the fiscal year 2012 budget (PDF).
We would also insist that issues like distracted driving can and should be attacked from both sides: via regulations and also driver's education. After all, traffic fatalities have been on the decline in recent years not only because people know to wear their seatbelts, but also because most states (New Hampshire excluded) have made wearing seatbelts mandatory. It's all well and good to put the burden for safety on drivers, but there has to be some incentive -- or negative reinforcement -- to make them follow through.