Smartphone Driving Distractions Targeted by NHTSA Proposed Guidelines

Smartphone manufacturers are being asked by federal regulators to disable certain screens while moving at high speeds, indicating that more can be done to detect when users are operating a motor vehicle and reduce the risk of accidents caused by distracted driving. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed new safety guidelines (PDF) on November 23, in an effort to help address smartphone driver distractions, indicating that mobile devices should encourage users to just drive.

The guidelines are the second phase of the NHTSA’s two part plan to reduce traffic fatalities caused by distracted drivers. The first phase requested manufacturers of smartphone devices to implement a “driving mode”, which would deny users access to videos or manual texting. The second phase is aimed at having drivers put the devices down or have passengers answer calls or texts while the vehicle is in motion.

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The guidelines were released just before the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

“As millions of Americans take to the roads for Thanksgiving gatherings, far too many are put at risk by drivers who are distracted by their cellphones,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a press release. “These commonsense guidelines, grounded in the best research available, will help designers of mobile devices build products that cut down on distraction on the road.”

Although the NHTSA does not have the authority to implement laws deciding which programs become available to drivers on their smartphones or other electronic devices, the agency is encouraging drivers to use in-vehicle systems that are engineered and deemed safe for use while driving.

The proposed voluntary guidelines encourage the developers and manufacturers of portable and aftermarket electronic devices to design the products to include software that is compatible with vehicle information system software to implement features such as pairing and “Driver Mode.” NHTSA officials say that such features could reduce the potential for unsafe driver distraction by limiting the time a driver’s eyes are off the road.

Suggestions from the agency for the pairing and Driver Modes include limiting the functions of a device when the vehicles gear is moved from the Park position to the Drive position.

The guidelines were proposed shortly after new data from the Department of Transportation (DOT) was released in September indicating another spike in traffic fatalities for the 2015 year, reaching 35,092 roadway deaths that have been mostly attributed to speeding, impaired and distracted driving.

Additional vehicle collision safety data has indicated that the number of motor vehicle deaths increased 10% during the first half of 2016, compared to the same time period last year. The data was released in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) October 2016 issue of Traffic Safety Facts.

Many officials from the NHTSA attribute the consistent increases in traffic related fatalities to distracted driving, particularly from texting while driving. In May, University of Houston and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute researchers released a new study suggesting drivers who text while driving are more prone to veering off course, suggesting that the activity has a greater disruption to the eye-hand coordination, increasing the risk of an auto accident.

Along with the latest guidelines, the NHTSA offered drivers the following tips to avoid being distracted:

  • Put cell phones down and focus on the road.
  • When using an electronic device for directions, set the destination prior to driving.
  • When you are a passenger, speak up if you see the driver using an electronic device, and offer to call and text for the driver.
  • Always wear a seat belt.


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