The Transportation Department and automakers would seem to be on a collision course over the issue of distracted driving -- that is, if the federal government could legally require carmakers, or even drivers, to follow the guidelines it's developing to stem distracted driving.
The public comment period for the department's new guidelines came to a close earlier this week. These guidelines include recommendations that drivers use only one hand to operate electronic devices and limit their off-road glances to two seconds, and that vehicles disable drivers' ability to text message, dial and browse the Internet while they're in motion.
But these are nonbinding recommendations -- in other words, not enforceable by law. And at the same time that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is putting them forward, automakers are scrambling to appease drivers' tech cravings by building in new and increasingly elaborate features, such as those allowing drivers to use Wi-Fi, Google Earth, Facebook and Twitter.
According to reporting by the Detroit News
will be offering Google Earth and Wi-Fi, while Nissan
, General Motors and Ford
plan to roll out technology that accesses Google, Facebook and Twitter.
LaHood's guidelines mostly call for limitations on the use of in-car technology, not on its availability. "We don't have to choose between safety and technology," LaHood told the Detroit News. "But while these devices may offer consumers new tools and features, automakers have a responsibility to ensure they don't divert a driver's attention away from the road."
The problem is, it's not a legal responsibility. There are no consequences for automakers who don't abide by the recommendations; the onus falls squarely on drivers to manage the growing number of distractions.
Whether technology and safety can co-exist inside our cars, as LaHood claims, is certainly open for debate. In 2010, 3,092 people were killed in accidents related to distracted driving, a figure that comprised 9.4 percent of total road fatalities. The National Safety Council estimates that 24 percent of crashes are caused by mobile-device use.
If the technology is in the vehicle, drivers will use it, says Rob Reynolds of FocusDriven, an anti-distracted-driving organization. And the very existence of the technology inside the car gives drivers the impression that it's safe to use. Hands-free technology doesn't cut it, Reynolds says. "It's like putting a filter on a very large cigarette and giving people the impression that it might make smoking that cigarette safe."