Feds, automakers on collision course over dashboard distractions

Posted March 06, 2011, at 8:23 p.m.

Ray LaHood, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, is racing toward a head-on collision with the automobile industry. The coming crash is over their diametrically different views of driver distraction and what to do about it.

We’ve known for a long time that safe driving requires constant attention. Most accidents occur when the driver switches his or her attention from the road ahead to something else. It can be another car that’s gone off the road or a glance backward to see if you’ve cleared another car that you’ve passed. Or it can be eating a snack, conversation with a passenger, squabbling kids in the back seat, or antics of the family pet.

A whole new set of distractions has arrived on the scene with the popularity of cell phones, iPods and GPS units. Now, they are all on the dashboard.

Mr. LaHood has been concentrating on these electronic gadgets as a new and dangerous source of driver distraction. He kicked off his department’s ongoing distracted driving campaign two years ago with a warning that the nation faced “a very, very serious problem” — a menace to society that seemed to be getting worse each year.

He brought together top experts in safety, transportation, research, regulation and law enforcement. He included a panel of teens and young adults so that their perspectives and ideas could lead to changed behavior of their peers.

They quickly saw that the old rule of “eyes on the road and hands on the wheel” was not enough. They focused on three types of distraction: visual (requiring the driver to look away from the roadway), manual (requiring the driver to take a hand off the steering wheel to manipulate a device), and cognitive (involving thinking about something other than the task of driving).

Ford claims the lead in satisfying the demand by teens and 20-year-olds to stay connected continuously with friends and music while on the go. It is promoting its new Sync system as a safety measure to play music, read text messages, and provide a selection of canned replies so that the driver can keep eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. But this invites the cognitive class of distractions, as well as an occasional manual distraction when the driver may, as Ford puts it, “answer an incoming call with the push of a button.”

When New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd told Mr. LaHood that the girl in a Ford demonstration video looked dangerously distracted, he said that tweeting, Facebook entries and entertainment centers were distractions and had no place in automobiles. He promised to “see what the auto companies can do voluntarily and what we need to do otherwise. I don’t think drivers should be doing any of that.”

He means business. The collision is coming.

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