Carmakers are building increasingly complicated devices to distact drivers
Call to cut distracting in-car devices

NEW YORK: A federal traffic agency formally urged carmakers on Thursday to stop equipping vehicles with entertainment and navigation systems that can distract drivers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said its proposed guidelines are voluntary and not intended to reduce the sale of features such as navigation systems. Rather, it wants to encourage companies to make them safer.

Studies have shown that the risk of crashing jumps when drivers take their eyes off the road for even two seconds, particularly the faster they go. Carmakers, however, are building increasingly complicated devices - called 'infotainment' systems - that control music, navigation, phone systems, even Internet searches and social media updates.

Though many carmakers have developed voice-activated versions of these systems, many functions still require hands-on use, and some consumers simply prefer to use them that way.

The broad guidelines encourage automakers to reduce the complexity of tasks that are not related to driving, including limiting activities that require drivers to take both hands off the wheel or that take more than two seconds to perform. The agency said that the proposals would not levy any penalties against carmakers that fail to comply.

'The choice between ensuring drivers are safe and including cutting-edge features in cars is false,' said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who announced the guidelines in Washington. 'We can and we must do both.'

Some safety advocates said the measures should be tougher, and fretted that they cannot be enforced because they are voluntary and do nothing to discourage drivers from talking on their phones.

'It's disappointing,' said Mr David Teater, senior director of transportation initiatives at the National Safety Council, a non-profit advocacy group. He said that the greatest risk to drivers, by far, is from talking on the phone because people spend so much more time talking than they do using dashboard devices.

Some months ago, the National Transportation Safety Board called on states to ban the use of phones while driving, including hands-free devices, because talking can distract drivers.

Lab studies have shown that talking on the phone can lead to a four- times-greater risk of crashing.

An industry trade group, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, praised the proposed guidelines and said they are consistent with industry practices.

Others who study traffic safety said the proposed guidelines are a positive step, and a realistic one given the popularity of the devices.

Said Mr Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association, whose members are state highway traffic officials: 'Of course, the best advice for drivers is to refrain from using any of these technologies while driving, but that probably isn't realistic.'