NHTSA seeks to close distracted driving loophole on mobile devices

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Reading newspapers and chatting on the cell phone over a burnt-out vehicle in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The stones on the car come from pavements broken up to provide ammunition for rock-throwing during the early violence of the protests.

One way to avoid distracted driving – stand on the hood while on the phone. (Photo Credit: CCBY-SA/Sherif9282/Wikipedia)

There’s a regulatory “doughnut hole” when it comes to cell phone use in the car, and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chair David Strickland is concerned. We’re not talking calls or texts here, however, but for using hands-free streaming services like Internet radio. Strickland sees all of these as aspects of distracted driving.

Vehicle equipment or driver distraction

Whether or not a device qualifies as “vehicle equipment” appears to be the sticking point for Strickland. Using mobile phones and other mobile gadgets and apps that don’t control a very specific purpose related to the function of the vehicle cannot officially earn said gadget the title of being vehicle equipment, as they are non-essential. As such, it’s all black and white for the NHTSA – if it doesn’t help the vehicle, it distracts the driver – and the organization is attempting to pass sweeping regulation.

Strickland told the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress in Detroit Thursday that his agency is empowered to regulate away all aspects of such distracted driving.

Enter the doughnut hole

While the Federal Communications Commission has the power to regulate how mobile phones operate as telephones, the FCC cannot make rulings in the area of automotive safety. As Strickland notes, this creates a “regulatory doughnut hole.”

“That’s a problem because it’s not clear which agency – if any – has authority to propose rules to limit how phones and other devices can be used in a moving vehicle – such as locking out texting functions,” he said. “We have more research to do.”

In response to the lack of progress on the part of federal lawmakers to deal in an efficient manner with the distracted driving loophole regarding non-vehicle equipment, Strickland recalled during his time as a Senate aide in 2003 how difficult it was to get the Senate to even consider rules regarding the use of backup cameras to keep vehicles from hitting small pedestrians like children, who could be in the blind spot. So far, a definitive law regarding the cameras has still not been passed, although Strickland expects such regulation to be in place by the end of the year.

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Americans want access

Former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt weighed in on the regulation the NHTSA is attempting to make happen. Blunt, who is currently president of the American Automotive Policy Council, believes a compromise is in order, rather than banning devices outright.

“Americans aren’t going to be separated from technology and the connectedness they’ve come to expect,” said Blunt. “They are going to want access, and there are two ways to do that. We certainly believe you need to integrate technology into the vehicle rather than forcing people to use hand-helds.”

Strickland is not unsympathetic to consumer demand, and believes compromise can occur.

“We recognize that vehicle manufacturers want to build vehicles that include the tools and conveniences expected by today’s American drivers,” said 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.”

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