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Dashboards That Distract Part 2

May 7, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
Fortunately for anyone trying to delve into 200-plus pages of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommendations on dashboard design, there is an executive summary filled with interesting info.

Such as:

Despite all the hoopla about getting our cellphones out of our hands, they’re not the sole source of distraction by electronics while driving. Much of the trouble in newer cars is designed into the vehicle. In 2010, according to NHTSA, there were about 899,000 (or 17 percent of all accidents that year) related to distracted drivers. Of that total, distraction by a device or control that is part of the vehicle was reported in 26,000 crashes, or 3 percent of all distracted-driver wrecks.

That's not smartphones. That’s the car itself.

If you haven't been behind the wheel of a car with alll the touchscreen modern conveniences, you probably are wondering what all this means. I sat in a few BMWs, a few Audis, a couple of Mercedes cars, Acuras and a couple new Cadillacs and Lincolns at the Pittsburgh Auto Show back in February, and for the first time, it occurred to me they were confusing just parked in an exhibit hall. Three hours with the owner's manual in the driveway might make a difference, but it suffices that cars no longer are Your Father's Oldsmobile. (Or any Oldsmobile, given that Olds died before touchscreens became a car thing.)

NHTSA released its “Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving” last June, including the development of nonbinding recommendations to manufacturers to minimize the distraction potential of portable and in-vehicle devices. The report issued in late April is the first phase, the recommendations about car design. Next will come a series of recommendations of the interface between human and portable and aftermarket devices. The last phase will be to expand the guidelines to “auditory-vocal interfaces,” in other words, voice command and control of in-car electronics.

The recommendations are for vehicles of less than 10,000-pounds gross vehicle weight. In other words, from the smart car (so small the manufacturer doesn't capitalize the "S") to big pickup trucks and some light vans.

NHTSA said there are fundamental principles, which sound pretty basic, but surely our money was well spent on finding:

-- A driver’s eyes should be focused on the road ahead usually.

-- A driver should be able to keep at least one hand on the wheel while performing a secondary task (driving and non-driving related) which would include everything from changing the radio station to switching on the wipers, I would assume.

-- Any distraction by a secondary task shouldn’t exceed what existed with manual controls (i.e., it shouldn’t take longer to change a radio station with a touch-screen in the instrument panel than it would have with a big knob and a dial in a good old-fashioned car). -- Any task performed by a driver should be interruptible at any time. (NHTSA did not indicate “secondary” task, leading me to believe I should be able to go into brain-fart mode behind the wheel without a problem ….)

-- The driver, not the system or device, should control the pace of the interaction. (Which would, by my calculations overrule ever using my iPad 1 plugged into any dashboard. It controls the pace of everything now that it is an operating system behind the times.)

-- Displays should be easy for the driver to see and content should be easy to discern.

All of which means, in human, nongovernmentspeak: Keep It Simple, Stupid, even if you have 10,000 engineers in Warren, Mich., designing the latest generation of touch-screen gadgets for the installation in the Next Big Overpriced Car from Detroit.

Enough for today. We continue our Lessons In Dashboards tomorrow, courtesy of NHTSA.


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