Washington, DC - Federal regulators issued new guidelines on Tuesday aimed at making it tougher for drivers to become distracted by the navigation or entertainment systems in cars.
But automakers say limits on in-car technology will backfire, enticing drivers into using their personal smartphones instead of cars' built-in systems.
The guidelines issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are voluntary, although widespread adoption is likely. Car companies are urged to restrict any system that lets drivers push buttons or otherwise manually input addresses or other data while the car is moving. Voice-activated systems are preferred.
NHTSA says the guidelines try to ensure that drivers won't take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds at a time. Besides those quick glances, they say no task should take more than 12 seconds total.
The guidelines are based upon those drafted by the automakers' industry association, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "NHTSA and automakers share the same goal: drivers need to keep their eyes on the road, hands on the wheel and connect their mobile phones to the built-in car systems," the alliance said in a statement.
But the group warned that NHTSA now needs to move quickly to address distraction by cell phones, which it warned could increase. It says 98% of distraction-related accidents were due to factors other than in-car technology.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who recently announced that he is stepping down once a successor is named, has made distracted driving the cornerstone of his tenure, largely by pushing states to enact laws against texting and using cell phones while behind the wheel. The new guidelines represent the first attempt to address the vehicle itself.
"These guidelines recognize that today's drivers appreciate technology, while providing automakers with a way to balance the innovation consumers want with the safety we all need," LaHood said.
Honda says it hasn't allowed drivers to type addresses into navigation systems in moving vehicles since 2012. But some automakers still do. BMW encourages voice activation and doesn't allow video displays while a car is moving, but does allow manual inputs.
Tesla Motors, the California maker of electric cars, also allows manual inputs while the car is moving, although it has upgraded its software to make more use of controls on steering wheels, which are considered less distracting than buttons on navigation screens.
The government doesn't plan to penalize automakers that don't meet the guidelines once they take effect in three years. But liability concerns may play a role in companies' decisions.
If a driver crashed while operating a navigation system, there would be a "good case" against that automaker, says Michigan plaintiff lawyer Wolfgang Mueller.
"The first rule of safety engineering is to design out the hazard," says Mueller, who is also a former Chrysler engineer. "Clearly this is reasonable, since most every other car maker has disabled their system when the vehicle is in gear."