NHTSA proposes guidelines to reduce smartphone-based driver distractions

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The US Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has released proposed guidelines to help address driver distraction caused by mobile and other electronic devices in vehicles.

The new announcement covers the second phase of voluntary guidelines to address driver distraction on the USA’s roads. The first phase, released in April 2013, focused on devices or systems built into the vehicle at the time of manufacture. The proposed, voluntary guidelines are designed to encourage portable and aftermarket electronic device developers to design products that, when used while driving, reduce the potential for driver distraction. The guidelines encourage manufacturers to implement features such as pairing, where a portable device is linked to a vehicle’s infotainment system, as well as ‘Driver Mode’, which is a simplified user interface. Both pairing and Driver Mode will reduce the potential for unsafe driver distraction by limiting the time a driver’s eyes are off the road, while at the same time preserving the full functionality of these devices when they are used at other times.

The proposed guidelines are aimed at the manufactures of smartphones and other cellular devices, as well as the applications development community. In the same way that the automotive industry has generally adhered to the first set of guidelines, the NHTSA hopes to convince smartphone manufacturers to design their next operating systems so that they limit the level of functionality that can be accessed by drivers, and that they make user interfaces simpler while the user is operating a vehicle.

The NHTSA would like to restrict devices so that, when used by a driver in a moving vehicle, they would not:

• Display video or moving images that are not driving-related;

• Display automatically scrolling text or SMS messages;

• Display text from publications, internet content, including social media, advertising or marketing;

• Allow manual text entry for messaging or internet browsing.

With similar functions to the commonly used ‘Aeroplane Mode’, the NHTSA recommends that the Driver Mode should activate automatically when the smartphone is not paired with the vehicle’s system or when the device determines that it is being used by the driver and not a passenger. There should be no restrictions placed on devices operated by passengers in the vehicle, if they are not involved in driving. The agency is seeking public comments on its proposed guidelines.

“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 cell phones,” said US Transportation Secretary, Anthony Foxx. “These common-sense guidelines, grounded in the best research available, will help designers of mobile devices build products that cut down on distraction on the road.”

NHTSA Administrator, Dr Mark Rosekind (above), added, “NHTSA has long encouraged drivers to put down their phones and other devices, and just drive. With driver distraction one of the factors behind the rise of traffic fatalities, we are committed to working with the industry to ensure that mobile devices are designed to keep drivers’ eyes where they belong; on the road.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since he joined the company in May 2014. Prior to this he worked on some of the UK's leading consumer magazine titles including Men's Health and Glamour, beginning his career in journalism in 1997 after graduating with a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).

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