The math on distraction argues for a shift in strategy

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Automakers share NHTSA’s concern about distraction and we are passionately committed to the objective outlined so eloquently by the NHTSA administrator. We applaud the agency for embracing technology as a part of the solution while recognizing the time is here to address the role of hand-held personal devices like smartphones, tablets and navigation tools while driving.
 
In their new guidelines, NHTSA seems to have gently nudged open the door to the larger challenge here by encouraging portable device stakeholders to “consider” how these guidelines should be extended to the use of hand-held devices. After all, a Virginia Tech study released by the agency along with the guidelines indicated that "visual-manual tasks associated with hand-held phones and other portable devices increased the risk of getting into a crash by three times."
 
Automakers commend the many organizations like the Cellular Telephone Industry Association who have launched campaigns to educate drivers. But more is needed.     
 
By overly inhibiting in-vehicle systems without simultaneously discouraging cell phone use in cars, NHTSA’s guidelines could undermine the goal of motivating drivers to connect their phones to the car. The navigation lock-out is an example. The guidelines would prevent you from entering your destination in a built-in vehicle system unless your car is in “park.” Whether or not this capability should be allowed in a moving car is worth debating, but since it is not restricted at all in hand-held devices, drivers may well rely on their smartphone or tablet rather than the built-in system designed for use while driving.
 
Thus, automakers are concerned that constraining the design of built-in vehicle systems will have the unintended consequence of incentivizing cell phone use in cars. Clearly, this increases distraction and reduces safety.
 
What’s the solution? Automakers encourage NHTSA to proceed rapidly and work with the relevant stakeholders to prepare similar guidelines covering portable devices.
 
We need this comprehensive approach because the new NHTSA guidelines do not address the underlying problem. 
 
Consider the math of distracted driving. Only 2 percent of distraction accidents are related to in-vehicle systems, partly because the Auto Alliance formulated effective voluntary guidelines a decade ago. In fact, 98 percent of distraction accidents are related to other causes – from cell phone use to crying babies -- for which there are no voluntary or involuntary guidelines and to which these newly issued guidelines do not apply. So government is focusing attention on a remarkably narrow sliver of the issue while postponing attention where it really matters.  
 
With any new safety-enhancing feature in vehicles, it takes many years for existing vehicles to be replaced by autos equipped with the newest technology. In the U.S. today, there are 250 million vehicles on our roads, and new car sales are running around 15 million units annually. So, about 6 percent of all vehicles are replaced every year. Thus, the new NHTSA guidelines would have a limited effect on driver distraction over time. 
 
Addressing the smartphone challenge immediately would have a far more consequential impact on distraction for lots of reasons, the most obvious being that phones are replaced or upgraded at a much more rapid rate than cars. And software on phones is routinely updated, facilitating adjustments based on policy choices at lightning speed.
 
Simply, the digital world demands a quicker response. Two actions would jump-start a real, meaningful response to distraction.  
 
First, we urge NHTSA to develop guidelines on hand-held devices immediately.  
 
Second, we encourage all stakeholders to unite and forge a nimble, technology-based, coordinated strategy for all of us to pursue. Together, we can find a comprehensive approach to help make our roads safer, even as the pace of technology continues to accelerate.
 
Bainwol is president & CEO of the Auto Alliance.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is a trade association of 12 car and light truck manufacturers including BMW Group, Chrysler LLC, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz USA, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo.  Visit www.autoalliance.org for more information.