WASHINGTON -- Carmakers should design potentially distracting dashboard technology so it's automatically disabled while the vehicle is in motion, federal safety officials said Thursday.
In recent years automakers have been loading high-end cars with an array of built-in gadgets that enable drivers to multi-task behind the wheel -- equipment that enables text-messaging, Internet browsing, GPS navigation and phone dialing. But this technological advance has raised concerns that drivers' attention will be diverted from the road.
The new dashboard technology guidelines, proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, would exempt electronic-warning systems that alert drivers to potential collisions or lane changes, however.
The guidelines also include recommendations on how to make dashboard devices less distracting and time-consuming to use, including reducing the need for drivers to turn their eyes away from the road. The guidelines are aimed at passenger cars and sport utility vehicles, not trucks.
"We recognize that vehicle manufacturers want to build vehicles that include the tools and conveniences expected by today's American drivers," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "The guidelines we're proposing would offer real-world guidance to automakers to help them develop electronic devices that provide features consumers want without disrupting a driver's attention or sacrificing safety."
The guidelines are a good first step toward reducing driver distractions, said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.
But "the safest thing is for drivers is, not use these systems at all -- both hands on the wheel and the mind focused solely on driving," she said.
NHTSA is also considering future guidelines to address portable electronic devices drivers carry with them in cars, including GPS navigation systems, smart phones, electronic tablets and pads, and other mobile communication devices.
In December, the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigation highway accidents, said that texting, emailing or chatting on a cellphone while driving is simply too dangerous to be allowed and urged all states to impose total bans except for emergencies.
Currently, 35 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, while nine states and D.C. bar hand-held cellphone use. Thirty states ban all cellphone use for beginning drivers. But enforcement is generally not a high priority, and no states ban the use of hands-free devices for all drivers.