Safety first for in-car gadgets

Three years ago, I answered a call. It was a call from families across America who lost loved ones in senseless crashes caused by texting and cellphone use behind the wheel. It was their stories — of dreams shattered and lives cut short — that turned the fight to end distracted driving into my personal crusade.

As the Obama administration has fully embraced its leadership role on this issue, we also acknowledge the connected world we live in. Auto manufacturers and technology companies are responding to consumer demand by creating new and innovative communications systems. But preventing crashes caused by distractions behind the wheel doesn’t just make good safety sense — it makes good business sense.

Here are the facts: Distracted driving is unsafe, irresponsible and can have devastating consequences. Every single time drivers take their focus off the road, even for a split second, they put their lives and the lives of others in danger. In 2010 alone, more than 3,000 people were killed in crashes in which distracted driving was a factor. 

Because studies show that texting or talking on a hand-held phone significantly increases your risk of crashing, the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation and states across the country have been working tirelessly to get cellphones out of drivers’ hands through a combination of good laws, tough enforcement and increased public awareness. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have already banned texting while driving, while nine states and D.C. ban all hand-held cellphone use while driving. And DOT pilot programs launched in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., show that if these laws are enforced, distracted driving incidents go down.

But as technology evolves, cellphones aren’t the only potential distractions in vehicles. Many auto manufacturers are now developing in-vehicle electronics systems that can read emails, post to social networking sites and search the Internet. While these devices offer consumers new tools and features, DOT is urging automakers to ensure they don’t divert a driver’s attention away from the road.

This week, the Department of Transportation will host a series of public hearings and solicit public comment on a set of guidelines we proposed last month that would reduce the risk of distraction from electronic systems increasingly built into new vehicles. These voluntary recommendations, the first of their kind, are the next step in our ongoing distracted driving campaign and are the result of significant research and analysis by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). They would help auto manufacturers develop electronic devices that provide features consumers want — without sacrificing safety.

The guidelines include recommendations to reduce task complexity and limit the amount of time drivers must divert their eyes or take a hand off the wheel to operate an in-vehicle electronic device. Additionally, they recommend that device functions like GPS entries, text messaging, phone dialing, and Internet browsing be disabled unless the vehicle is stopped or in park.

The choice between safety and progress is a false one. These are common-sense guidelines that would offer automakers an opportunity to join us in taking a major step forward in identifying real-world solutions to distracted driving. They are based in sound research and science that advance the values that the department, auto manufacturers and consumers all share: to ensure that America’s roadways and the vehicles traveling on them are as safe as possible.

During the three years that the Department of Transportation has committed to putting an end to America’s distracted driving epidemic, I’ve called on states to pass tough cellphone laws and law enforcement officers to write tickets when they see people breaking them. I’ve encouraged employers to enact policies and drivers to take pledges to put their cellphones down every time they get behind the wheel. Now, I’m calling on the auto industry to join our cause by putting safety before entertainment and limiting distractions caused by electronic devices in vehicles.

Distracted driving crashes are 100 percent preventable. Even one text or call could wreck it all. And that is one message we hope everyone receives loud and clear.

LaHood is secretary of the Department of Transportation.