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Taking responsibility for distracted drivers

Drivers are responsible for their conduct behind the wheel. If a driver causes an accident while texting or posting on Facebook, he or she should be held liable for any injuries that result. Driver responsibility does not necessarily mean that the makers of cell phones bear no responsibility for their obvious contribution to distracted driving, however. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration recently passed a set of voluntary guidelines aimed at pushing the makers of mobile phones and other electronic devices to implement changes to prevent distracted driving accidents.

An imperfect compromise

The NHTSA's proposal drew criticism from safety advocates and people in the electronics industry. Some say that the voluntary guidelines can and will be ignored by an industry unconcerned with distracted driving deaths. Industry leaders claim that the NHTSA is overreaching and has no business setting terms for products that are not motor vehicle equipment. No safety measure is likely to please everyone, however, so the important thing to consider is whether the guidelines will reduce fatal car accidents. 

The guidelines

The Department of Transportation is trying to reduce the level of distraction faced by drivers. The guidelines call on the makers of cell phones and cell phone apps to make the devices pair more easily with vehicle infotainment systems. These systems are motor vehicle equipment and fit easily within the purview of the NHTSA. The guidelines also call for devices to have a Driver Mode, which would make operating the phone simpler by increasing the size of the display and disabling certain functions that are too complex for someone to attempt while driving.

A dangerous message?

The NHTSA press release reiterated the position that distraction-free driving is safe driving. Yet the guidelines clearly acknowledge, and arguably condone, behaviors that are not conducive to safe driving. A simplified interface does not prevent distracted driving. If a person is looking at a cell phone, he or she is not looking at the road. Humans can focus on driving or working their phones, not both. In this case, a half-measure might be more dangerous than none at all.

Source: The Seattle Times, "Feds urge phone makers to lock some apps while car is on move," by Todd Shields and Alan Levin, 23 November 2016 

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