Federal proposal could lead to less distracted driving, lower auto insurance rates

In a move that eventually could lower auto insurance rates, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is urging automakers to incorporate technologies into new vehicles that would disable communication and navigation systems while someone's driving.

As part of a growing campaign to crack down on distracted driving, LaHood also may call on automakers to equip cars with technology that disables cellphones, smartphones, electronic tablets and other mobile devices while vehicles are moving.

Taking on texting

Distracted driving is a dangerous and deadly habit on America’s roadways – that’s why I’ve made it a priority to encourage people to stay focused behind the wheel,” LaHood says. “These guidelines are a major step forward in identifying real solutions to tackle the issue of distracted driving for drivers of all ages.”

distracted_driverThe proposed guidelines come amid growing unease about the dangers of distracted driving, which includes talking or texting on cellphones, using GPS, eating food, putting on makeup and attending to children.

Of increasing concern is the practice of texting and surfing the Internet while driving. Drivers must take their eyes off the road and at least one hand off the wheel to text and surf. Furthermore, people can become so absorbed in their conversations and their use of addicting gadgets that their ability to drive is harmed.

In 2010, nearly 3,100 people were killed and about 500,000 injured in crashes involving driver distraction. Studies show drivers who use handheld devices are four times more likely than other drivers to get into a crash serious enough to cause injury.

In response to the dangers of distracted driving, 35 states and the District of Columbia have passed texting-while-driving bans. Nine states and D.C. prohibit motorists from using handheld cellphones while driving.

Tackling a 'huge problem'

Russ Rader, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says the new federal guidelines would encourage a variety of technological approaches to this “huge problem.”

“We’ve had good results in the past working with automakers on voluntary safety programs,” Rader says. “So, it’s a good step the government is taking to work with automakers on the distracted driving problem.”

Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, says the trade group is reviewing the guidelines so it can offer input during hearings in March being held by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Los Angeles, Chicago and D.C.

Attempting to keep up automakers unveiling newer ways for drivers to stay connected behind the wheel, a cottage industry of companies has sprung up, offering technologies that prevent drivers from texting, emailing or surfing the web. The technologies work by placing restrictions on the mobile devices based on GPS signals, vehicle data or nearby cellphone towers. Incoming calls are routed to voicemail, or automated messages are sent to explain that a driver is busy.

“Digital technology has created a connected culture in America that has forever changed our society,” Bergquist says. “Consumers expect to have access to new technology, so integrating and adapting this technology to enable safe driving is the solution.”

Jeanne Salvatore, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, says the proposed guidelines could reduce auto insurance rates in the future.

“It remains to be seen,” Salvatore says. “If accident rates go down, then that will be calculated into the rates going forward."

Convenience vs. caution

The first set of proposed federal guidelines includes recommendations automakers can use to ensure communication, entertainment and navigational devices installed in vehicles are less likely to distract drivers.

The federal government is considering a second set of guidelines that would encourage automakers to install equipment that would disable portable electronic devices such as navigation systems, smartphones, electronic tablets and other mobile devices. A third set of guidelines would be aimed at reducing distractions caused by voice-activated equipment.

“We recognize that vehicle manufacturers want to build vehicles that include the tools and convenience expected by today’s American drivers,” says David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“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.”

'No silver bullet'

Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, says the proposed guidelines are a promising step in the fight against distracted driving.

“Like most highway safety problems, there is no silver bullet,” Harsha says. “You have to do a lot of different things. It’s important to pass laws banning the use of cellphones while driving and enforce them. It’s important to have education programs and employer policies. It’s also important to have restrictions on the use of new technologies to limit driving distractions.”

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