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US DOT releases voluntary guidelines to minimize in-vehicle distractions

24 April 2013

The US Department of Transportation has released distraction guidelines that encourage automobile manufacturers to limit the distraction risk connected to electronic devices built into their vehicles, such as communications, entertainment and navigation devices.

Issued by the Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the voluntary guidelines establish specific recommended criteria for electronic devices installed in vehicles at the time they are manufactured that require drivers to take their hands off the wheel or eyes of the road to use them.

The guidelines include recommendations to limit the time a driver must take his or her eyes off the road to perform any task to two seconds at a time and twelve seconds total. The guidelines also recommend disabling several operations unless the vehicle is stopped and in park, such as:

  • Manual text entry for the purposes of text messaging and internet browsing;

  • Video-based entertainment and communications like video phoning or video conferencing; and

  • Display of certain types of text, including text messages, web pages, social media content.

The recommendations outlined in the guidelines are consistent with the findings of a new NHTSA naturalistic driving study, “The Impact of Hand-Held and Hands-Free Cell Phone Use on Driving Performance and Safety Critical Event Risk”. The study showed that visual-manual tasks associated with hand-held phones and other portable devices increased the risk of getting into a crash by three times.

The study found text messaging, browsing, and dialing resulted in the longest duration of driver’s taking their eyes-off-road. Text messaging increased the risk of a crash or near-crash by two times and resulted in the driver’s eyes off the road for an average of 23.3 seconds total. Visual-manual activities performed when completing a phone call—such as reaching for a phone, looking up a contact and dialing the number—increased the risk by three times.

The study did not find a direct increased crash risk from the specific act of talking on a cell phone. However, the manual-visual interactions involved with using a hand-held phone made its overall use 1.73 times more risky, since the use of these devices involve visual-manual tasks 100 percent of the time. Even portable hands-free and in-vehicle hands-free cell phone use was found to involve visual-manual tasks at least 50% of the time, which are associated with higher risk.

Currently, the Department is partnering with the Transportation Research Board on a naturalistic driving study involving nearly 3,000 vehicles to examine the nation’s highway system including speed, curves, intersection control, lighting, driver fatigue, and distraction, among others. Distraction is one of many safety topics that will be examined as part of this large-scale data collection.

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