NHTSA Recommends Disabling In-Car Texting, Web Browsing, Video Calling

Thinking about sending a text message, browsing the web, or making a video call while driving? A new set of recommendations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would put the kibosh on any of those activities unless the car was stationary and in Park. The announcement comes after a study by Texas A&M University reveals that using text-to-speech systems is no safer than manually typing text messages.

NHTSA released a new set of voluntary guidelines designed to prevent in-car infotainment systems from distracting drivers. Although the rules are not binding, automakers might heed the recommendations in case they later become law. The rules are designed to reduce the amount of time a driver takes his or her hands off the steering wheel, and the amount of time he or she looks away from the road. NHTSA data says that those two activities are significantly more distracting than simply making a hands-free phone call.

"Visual-manual tasks can degrade a driver's focus and increase the risk of getting into a crash up to three times," NHTSA administrator David Strickland said in a statement. "Visual-manual tasks" include typing on a touchscreen, picking up a cell phone, and typing on a phone.

The recommendations require that using an infotainment system limits the time a driver takes his or her eyes off the road to two seconds at a time, and a total of 12 seconds to accomplish a single task. In addition, the following features should be disabled unless the car is stationary and in Park: manually typing text messages or internet addresses; video phone calls like Skype; and displaying certain reading-intensive applications like text messages, social media updates, and web pages.

NHTSA announced a broader version of these recommendations in February 2012. That did not lead to any new federal laws or regulations.

The pronouncement comes after a study from Texas A&M University revealed that one tool to fight distracted driving might not help at all. The study looked at whether voice-to-text software, which lets users dictate text messages to their smartphone, reduced driver distraction. Based on drivers using Siri on the Apple iPhone or Vlingo on Android devices, as well as control drivers sending text messages manually, the study determined that voice-to-text apps distract drivers just as much as typing.

Using voice-to-text apps doubled drivers' reaction times, and it took them about twice as long as texting by hand due to voice recognition errors. Moreover, the drivers looked away from the roadway for a similar amount of time whether dictating or typing text messages. The study's conclusion: using voice-to-text functions in a smartphone is just as dangerous as texting by hand.

Sources: NHTSA, Texas A&M Transportation Institute

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