NHTSA's Misguided Driver Distraction Guidelines

Staff Blog

Staff Blog | Feb 22, 2012

By Tom and Ray Magliozzi

We learned this past week that NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is proposing new guidelines to regulate driver distraction. We welcome any effort to keep drivers focussed on the road-- so they don't wander into your prized Forsythia bush. Or worse... your two-year-old.

We think NHTSA's efforts are doomed, though, for at least two reasons:

Reason #1: It's Your Brain, Stupid

NHTSA's either missing or bending under pressure to ignore the cognitive part of the equation. Our pal David Strayer has been trying to get politician's attention on this point for, oh, the last decade or so. Taking your eyes off the road isn't helpful, of that there's no doubt. But one of the biggest causes underlying most driver distraction is technology that allows you to take your brain off the road. Like cell phones, for example. Or Ford's voice-activated Sync system. Why's Sync a problem? Because even hands-free, voice-activated technology requires plenty of cognitive power-- aka attention--more, it turns out, than reaching for and turning a dial.

If you don't believe us, try watching the evening news while having a phone conversation, and see if you take in details from both of them at the same time. At least if you get distracted doing that, you won't run over Brian Williams.

Maybe NHTSA was distracted by the lobbyists from the auto manufacturers and the cell phone industry?

Reason #B:  You Can't Control External Forces.

NHTSA's proposed guidelines are targeted at auto manufacturers. That's all well enough, but we think they're missing a bigger culprit. Namely, the devices that drivers bring into the car with them-- iPhones, Blackberrys, iPods, bluetooth-enabled nose hair trimmers-- all those untold gadgets that find themselves riding shotgun next to the driver.

In short, NHTSA erred in believing they can manage the situation by regulating distraction at the auto manufacturer level. They can't. Sorry guys-- it's well beyond your control at this point.

What to do? We need to start realizing that we're living in a world overflowing with distracted drivers. And guess what? It's getting worse, not better-- despite all the good and sensible efforts at educating the public. (Which we applaud, by the way-- but the 95% of us who prefer to believe we're better than 95% of the drivers on the road, don't think a distracted driving accident can happen to us.)

All of which brings us to our solution: start mandating new safety technology. Now.

If NHTSA is unwilling or unable to seriously reduce distractions in cars, it needs to start mandating the latest safety technologies in vehicles, including lane deviation technology, collision avoidance systems, adaptive cruise control, and more. In just a few short years, these safety improvements have already proven their value at saving lives. By requiring them, we can, in part, mitigate the dangers of the inevitable distracted drivers on the road. An added benefit? These additions will keep you alive when you start dozing at the wheel, when you reach back to dope slap your kid and steer towards that bridge abutment, or when you get stung on the tuchus by an errant killer africanized honeybee.

New safety technology may have one undesired outcome, we acknowledge. According to David Strayer, some drivers may be more likely to engage in risky behavior. “It isn't always clear if a safety device will make things safer,” he told us, “We think that some of the benefits may be offset by people adopting more risky behavior -- an example of what we call, ‘risk homeostasis.’ For example, people tended to drive faster when they got anti-lock brakes. If a safety technology somehow encourages the driver to zone out by taking a call, or updating their Facebook page, then the benefits may be offset.”

While we agree with our longtime pal David, that some drivers may be more likely to engage in risky behavior as a result of added safety features, we still see this as the best solution to the distraction epidemic plaguing our roads today. Mind you, we're not averse to doing what we can to get drivers to stop being distracted, to slow down, and start paying attention... we just don't think those solutions alone will be nearly enough. Not by a long shot.

And what about the automakers? They'll cry "Uncle!" of course. They always do. Detroit cried foul when the government required seat belts, airbags, catalytic converters, advanced emission controls-- and every single increase in fuel economy standards since 1975. When they complain, let's be sure to remind the automakers that they once claimed that their customers didn't want and couldn't afford these improvements, and that it would even result in their bankruptcy.

We rest our case.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One