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Dashboards that Distract, in conclusion: Guidelines mean rules

May 10, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is sticking with issuing non-binding guidelines for manufacturers regarding the complexity of telematics -- the electronic interface of entertainment, climate control, interconnectivity, etc., in cars.


Because, even though NHTSA has accident data showing drivers get distracted enough by what’s designed into their cars -- not just by smartphones -- to have accidents, it knows more research is needed to decide what the best courses of action can be in setting the more strict law of the land in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard code. NHTSA also knows that the pace of technological changes mean today’s rules might be out of date by the time they move through the lengthy government process and become part of the standards by which manufacturers must abide in building cars.

Of course, non-binding or not, these suggestions for building dashboards that don’t take a driver’s eyes off the road for more than 2 seconds at a time or for more than a total of 12 seconds to accomplish a task, to bar scrollling information text and text messaging for drivers, to make navigation systems easy to read and not to include three-dimensional or satellite images of maps and cities, will be de facto the law of the land. Because, and I’m no attorney here, I know that if I take my 2015 EconoBox Special or Italian Job or whatever out and wrap it around a pole because I was trying to figure out how to open the ventilation system and change a radio station, I might have a good case against the manufacturer if these guidelines weren’t followed. You can see the lawsuit in some courtroom.

Attorney: Was Big Corporate Auto Manufacturer, your employer, aware of these guidelines?

Designer of car for Big Corporate Auto Manufacturer: Yes.

Attorney: And yet, Mr. Pablo, who has a broken fingernail and a pair of twisted RayBans and a big scratch on his shiny scalp, was forced to flip through three screens, touch a mouse control and then hit an icon with his index finger when he tried to find the Pirates game on the radio in heavy traffic on I-376, leading to him getting distracted. Is that not true? Designer: Well, we don’t really condone putting one's being a Pirates fan ahead of safe driving.

Attorney: Mr. Pablo well and truly bellieves that this is their year. Which is relevant to Major League Baseball but not to the situation at hand in this courtroom. Answer the question.

Designer: Yes, YES, OK? We knew some people, like your client, couldn’t change the radio station without wrapping their new Italian Job around a utility pole because they had to stare at the dash for 4.7 seconds to hit the little icon with the picture of a radio on it. They couldn’t find the radio controls. There. I said it! I issued a report reminding my boss...

And so on.

Whistleblowers and lawsuits and damages. NHTSA’s recommendations might as well be rules. NHTSA has no enforcement powers over suggestions, but lawsuits and the judiciary will, so suggestions are rules, I figure. I’ll keep an eye out for Phase II suggestions, which will cover portable devices and after-market add-ons to cars.

For now, just try not to get too distracted.


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