NHTSA's New Guidance Lists Unsafe Driver Distractions

Opting for a recommendation rather than a rule, in part because the costs and benefits cannot be accurately estimated, the agency said manual text entry, reading more than 30 characters, and automatically scrolling text are per se unsafe.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed new guidance intended to discourage vehicle manufacturers from adding "excessively distracting devices," in the agency's words, to their vehicles. The key takeaways in the lengthy Federal Register notice are that NHTSA said it can't issue a regulation to do this and that after extensive study, it considers certain tasks to be inherently unsafe and wants them to be locked out -– unavailable to a driver when the vehicle is moving.

Specifically excluded are collision warning or vehicle control systems because these are designed to capture the driver's attention and aid in controlling the vehicle and avoiding crashes, NHTSA said.

The proposed list of "per se" lock outs for in-vehicle device tasks:

  • Displaying photographic or graphical moving visual images not related to driving (including tasks such as video phone calls and other forms of video communication, as well as pre-recorded video footage and television). The guidance says images that are related to driving include information that is useful in monitoring vehicle occupant status, maneuvering the vehicle, or assisting in route planning. "Short, scrolling lists under the control of the driver (e.g., navigation system destinations) should not be significantly distracting provided the information is presented in accordance with these NHTSA Guidelines," it states. A visual image depicting blind zone areas around the vehicle is information related to the driving task, as are weather information and emergency information.
  • Displaying photographic or graphical static visual images unrelated to driving (such as album art and personal photos).
  • Automatically scrolling text.
  • Manual text entry (such as drafting text messages or keyboard-based text entry). "The driver should not input more than 6 button or key presses during the performance of a task. This limit is based on an assumed driver eyes-off-road time of 2.0 seconds per button or key press and NHTSA's maximum permitted total eyes-off-road time for a task of 12.0 seconds," the guidance states.
  • Reading more than 30 characters, not including punctuation marks, of visually presented text (noting that a number, no matter how many digits it contains, and a units designation such as mpg would count as only one character).

NHTSA said it will produce a final version of the guidance after conducting three public meetings: March 12 in Washington, D.C.; March 15 in Chicago; and March 16 in Los Angeles. Each hearing will start at 9 a.m. and continue until noon local time. It also is accepting comments until April 24 (www.regulations.gov, Docket No. NHTSA-2010-0053).

The agency said it decided not to propose a mandatory Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard for three principal reasons: "First, this is an area in which learning continues, and NHTSA believes that, at this time, continued research is both necessary and important. Second, technology is changing rapidly, and a static rule, put in place at this time, may face unforeseen problems and issues as new technologies are developed and introduced. Third, available data are not sufficient at this time to permit accurate estimation of the benefits and costs of a mandatory rule in this area. NHTSA's firm belief that there are safety benefits to be gained by limiting and reducing driver distraction due to integrated electronic devices is sufficient reason for issuing the NHTSA Guidelines, but in order to issue a rule, we need a defensible estimate of the magnitude of such benefits and the corresponding costs."

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