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US proposes rules targeting distracted driving

This news story was published on February 17, 2012.
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By Ian Duncan, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Transportation wants to employ technology against technology in its campaign against distracted driving. Cars should be designed to refuse to send texts, tweets or Facebook messages while they are moving, according to draft regulations.

Other tasks, such as pulling up a saved address in a GPS system, would be allowed. But they should be performed in two-second glances away from the road and with fewer than seven button pushes, according to the draft rules.

The proposed DOT regulations are voluntary recommendations for automobile manufacturers. For now they would apply only to systems built into cars by manufacturers, not mobile phones and other gadgets installed by owners, or voice-activated systems. The DOT said guidelines on those devices would be issued soon.

Distracted driving has increasingly become a problem since drivers started using mobile phones in cars, and in recent years auto manufacturers have been fitting their vehicles with GPS and entertainment systems. Ford’s Sync system, which has touch and voice controls, is installed in 4 million vehicles.

Total crash deaths have declined steadily since 2005, but fatalities caused by distracted driving have risen. In 2009, 5,474 people were killed as a result of distracted driving, and hundreds of thousands more were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Distracted driving is a dangerous and deadly habit on America’s roadways — that’s why I’ve made it a priority to encourage people to stay focused behind the wheel,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “These guidelines are a major step forward in identifying real solutions to tackle the issue of distracted driving for drivers of all ages.”

But FocusDriven, a group founded by the families of victims of distracted drivers, said the plan could encourage motorists to take more risks.

“What this does is allow people to believe that all of these applications must be safe,” said Rob Reynolds, the group’s executive director. “The recommendations fail to address the reality of the issue: Using these devices in your car causes crashes. This might be a little less risky, like putting a big filter on a cigarette.”

Reynolds’ 16-year-old daughter was killed by a distracted driver in 2007.

The government proposals build on standards established by the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers in 2002. The plan to disable certain functions is new and could face resistance from automakers. Gloria Bergquist, the alliance’s vice president, said it would be looking closely at the rules. She added that too-tight restrictions could lead drivers to install their own GPS boxes to get around the rules.

Hearings on the plans will be held in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. The final guidelines will be issued after a 60-day public consultation period.

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