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Distracted Driving Gets a Bigger Focus

Distracted Driving Gets a Bigger Focus

By Jeff Youngs, February 28, 2012
The federal government has weighed in with suggestions about how automakers can reduce distracted driving in the way they use infotainment technology, according to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. More than 3,000 people died in motor vehicle accidents in 2010 in which distracted driving was a factor, the government auto-safety agency indicates.

So LaHood has proffered a number of ways in which automakers can help stem the tide of distracted-driving accidents, including simplifying in-vehicle communications systems, designing devices that require only one hand, and disabling manual texting as well as Internet and social-media browsing during driving.

These ideas, and the broader thinking behind them, are both a potentially huge threat as well as a possible opportunity for automakers and their infotainment brands such as Ford's Sync, General Motors' OnStar, Audi Connect, and Toyota Entune, to name just a few. For while they, too, want to make sure in-vehicle infotainment systems are safe, and join LaHood in his overall intent, automakers may have some issues with these specific suggestions.

For one thing, automakers are aware of how younger consumers, especially, sometimes care more about connectivity features inside the car than exterior styling or what's under the hood. It may be difficult to square removing infotainment distractions with the industry's simultaneous push for accommodating more of the smartphone apps and other functions that consumers want to bring into the car--and to continue using while the car is moving.

Also, while it's understandable that regulators first want to focus on the hard-wired infotainment capabilities in vehicles before addressing imported devices, it's going to be at least as important for LaHood to get Apple and Motorola and Samsung on board the distracted-driving effort, because they create the out-of-vehicle devices that can become distractions in the vehicle.

Neither do the guidelines offer much help in tackling another big danger in distracted driving besides what motorists actually do with their hands and their eyes--what they do with their minds while driving. Sometimes the most acute distraction in a vehicle is the subject of a conversation on a smartphone, not the technology itself.

There's no doubt that distracted driving plays a large role in auto accidents, and may in fact be among the biggest vehicle safety problems of modern times in America. But the path to reducing it will be complicated.

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